March 20, 2023

Slamdance Festival 2023 film Review – Sweetheart Deal


Hideously uncomfortable yet highly nuanced documentary filmed at the surface zero of acute opiate abuse, sexual exploitation, and toxic co-dependency that is Seattle’s Aurora Ave.

Co-directors Elisa Levine and Gabriel Miller‘s extraordinarily candid film presents the struggle of a group of women as resilient as they are self-destructive. A collective of outliers clinging desperately to the fraying fringes of existence who see the good in each other even as the “monster” of addiction rips through their lives.

It’s a story told on their terms with a remarkable lack of sermonising and posturing that humanises and dignifies a broken seam of society so often demonised and debased. Harrowing and shocking yet often refreshingly cathartic  Sweetheart Deal never lifts its unwavering gaze from the grave consequences of substance habituation. That being said, it also engenders a tangible sense of identity in those making this perilous life choice that fundamentally distances itself from patronising sympathy porn.

Once the viewer steps behind the curtain into this netherworld of numbing needles, it becomes impossible not to be gripped by its car-crash candidness. Sweetheart Deal credits the audience with the empathy to evaluate rather than judge, and the humility to understand the difference. Each character we meet and their subsequent revelations add a new layer of comprehension that questions the cardinal directions of our own moral compass.

Whatever your views on drug use and sex work, it is impossible not to be impressed by some of the ingenuity and stoic pragmatism employed by these street survivalists. One of the girls circumnavigates a piss test with a revisionist ploy from Withnail and I, whilst another states coldly that financing her parent’s smoking habit means she just has to “suck a few more dicks”.

Throughout the film’s runtime, you will feel compelled to reach inside the screen and shake some sense into its subjects or hug some reassurance into their pitiful lives. Yet, as anyone who has spent time paralysed by the radius of addiction knows, only the victim of such a crippling illness can ultimately help themselves. 

As such when we are ambushed by the film’s insane narrative trajectory, we become helpless voyeurs that can only hope these paradoxically strong yet vulnerable women can break the cycle of self-harm and claim the happiness they deserve.

This nefarious twist could easily have swamped the film and drowned out the very voices it seeks to project from the lonely shadows of addiction. However, these classy documentarians preserve the integrity and humanism of Sweetheart Deal by staying loyally focused on the women at its emotional core. There is a rare symbiosis between art form and subject running through the film that gives it an air of altruistic credibility and understated empowerment.

Sweetheart Deal is a painfilled love letter to the strength of the human spirit dictated by those who consistently push it to breaking point. A lighthouse of a film that serves as both a searing beacon of hope and a glaring warning against becoming dashed upon the rocks of poisonous self-medication.

It’s also an immaculately constructed reality check that remains respectful to the women it unmasks despite the shrapnel of sensationalism that eventually engulfs them.

The subject matter may be ugly and depressing but in the hands of these brave filmmakers and story sharers, it blossoms into something beautiful and genuinely uplifting.


Documentary | USA, 2022 | 100 mins | Slamdance Film Festival 2022 | True Productions| Dirs. Elisa Levine, Gabriel Miller