Once in a while you come across an older movie so mesmerizing in its own independent little way that it trumps anything currently playing in the theater, particularly those so-called blockbusters weighed down with special effects. Such was the thought that came to mind as I watched Little Sweetheart, which was released in 1989, and starring my favorite British actor, John Hurt. Hurt's big film that same year was Scandal, a biopic about England's Profumo affair. It received a lot of buzz in the States because of is controversial orgy scene. Little Sweetheart contains scenes that might be considered more controversial yet has clearly been overlooked because I didn't become aware of it until a few years ago, and I'm awfully glad that someone uploaded it to YouTube. It really is a gem.
The lead character in Little Sweetheart is Thelma, as played by Cassie Barasch. Thelma is just about to turn 9 years old as the movie begins. She lives with her mother; her father has passed away (a detail reveled within the first few minutes that made me unsure if we were supposed to feel sympathetic towards Thelma for what she is about to do.) To say that Thelma is a brat would be an understatement. She's also a psychopath which becomes more blatantly clear as the movie goes on. When she snoops on her older brother and discovers him having sex with a girl, she blackmails him into giving her money to keep quiet. She is incredibly manipulative, nosy, a liar, makes her own rules and has an attitude problem to boot. You know that old saying about how little girls are "made of sugar and spice and everything nice?" This movie is going to make you forget all that. And you're going to hate her as much as I did.
Thelma and her mother are living--or perhaps vacationing--in a beach house in Florida. She is soon introduced to another girl her age named Elizabeth (played by Ellie Raab) who has moved in next door for the summer with her father (who introduces himself as Harry Harrison...snickers.) Thelma doesn't exactly warm up to Elizabeth right away but they end up hanging out at a local restaurant that day and become friends.
It's in the restaurant that Thelma and Elizabeth cross paths with Robert and Dorothea, as played by Hurt and Karen Young. They're a Bonnie and Clyde couple on the lamb after embezzling money in a bank scam and are hoping to lie low in a vacation home until the interest in their crime dies down. Of course, Thelma and Elizabeth aren't aware of this at first--they think Robert and Dorothea are just a vacationing married couple, and they help them locate their rented beach home called the Sandcastle (by willingly hopping into the backseat of their car when Robert offers them a ride--wow.) Dorothea is less than thrilled about the two girls chatting them up and the tension at times between her and Thelma in this movie is a like a rubber band, ready to snap.
Thelma soon figures out that Robert and Dorothea are not married, as she points out to Elizabeth that Robert wasn't wearing a wedding band. Later that night, the two girls sneak around the Sandcastle property and are spotted by Robert, but run away. The next day, at Thelma's birthday party, Robert shows up with a gift for her--a camera, as she had told him the day before it was what she wanted. She lets on to Robert that she caught him in a lie, and he takes the two girls aside and feeds them a story about him and Dorothea being reporters who are working on a big, top secret story and that they must not tell anybody.
This feeds Thelma's curiosity, and she and Elizabeth take to constantly sneaking around Sandcastle and spying on the couple. Then the two little creeps follow the couple down onto the beach, where they spot them making love. Thelma takes out her camera and begins to snap pictures.
Dorothea freaks out when Robert shows her the letter and the photo, and insists that Thelma is behind the plot. Robert thinks that she is being ridiculous (Thelma is only 9 years old, after all, and harmless.) On his way into town to the pharmacy, he encounters the two schemers walking along the road. Thelma and Elizabeth tell him they're going shopping and he gives them a ride into town.
Robert settles into a restaurant across the street from his car to see who the blackmailer is when Elizabeth shows up. She constantly distracts him by blocking his view out the window, playing with the curtain, and spilling a glass of Coke onto the floor. Suddenly Thelma comes running in, says she saw an African American man going into Robert's car, and Robert takes off in pursuit of the suspect she points out. She later lifts her skirt to reveal the envelope containing $100 to Elizabeth, tucked behind her panties.
By now you may be wondering where the hell are these girls' parents? Who lets a 9 year old girl leave the house and do what she pleases all day? And yep, you are correct. Thelma's mother and Elizabeth's parents are boneheads. But you also have to remember that the movie was made during the 80s, when kids often earned their freedom at a fairly young age. But, still...boneheads!
Elizabeth still has a conscious, however, and talks Thelma into returning the money to Robert along with an apology. At first, Thelma agrees, but then decides she doesn't want to go along with her idea. Considering she's in possession of the gun (which she now carries around in her purse) this leads to very dire consequences...first for Elizabeth, and then for other characters in the film.
As kids we were always taught not to talk to adult strangers. Little Sweetheart turns that notion upside down on its head--it's the kids who are the bad guys you cannot trust in this tale. As morally polluted Robert and Dorothea may be, their crimes are nothing compared to what the seriously twisted Thelma is capable of. She reminds me of the girls who started the witch hysteria of the 17th century, and I found myself wanting to stick my hands into my laptop's screen and strangle her. What's maddening is that Thelma never suffers any consequences for her actions (although there is a plot development at the end that could lead to vindication.) She's viewed throughout the movie by everyone (except for Dorothea) as an innocent kid who could never harm a fly, simply because she's 9 years old.
One of the reasons I love Hurt so much is because he's equally adept at playing villains as he is playing victims. In Little Sweetheart, we know that he is supposed to be a bad guy but ends up a victim. He comes across as the nicest and most naive character, and ultimately the one most worthy of our sympathy.
And as much as I disliked her character, I must admit I was bowed over by Cassie Barasch's performance as the diabolical Thelma. Remarkably, it doesn't appear that she acted again after making Little Sweetheart according to IMDB.com. There is a Cassie Barasch Ford coming up on Google but I have no idea if it's her. Ellie Raab would go on to secure parts in The Fabulous Baker Boys and The Ref.
This BBC produced film was based on a 1970s novel called "The Naughty Girls" which took place in France; the movie obviously takes place in the U.S. and was filmed on St. George's Island in Florida.
I don't believe that Little Sweetheart is available on DVD, so I suggest watching it on YouTube before it's taken down. Here's part 1 of 9 below.