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“Sweet Relief” is an atypical slasher exploring small-town America’s underbelly; it’s slow-burn, think-outside-the-box horror at its finest.

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Take 1 (Jamie Marino)

Sweet Relief

Sweet Relief, from writer/producer/director Nick Verdi, is a slow-burning but tense 87-minute journey to the denouement, which intertwines the fates of all our characters by way of a shock-and-awe, violent conclusion.

The story begins innocently enough. Snuggled inside a field of green grass in a small Massachusetts town, Hannah (Lucie Rosenfeld), Lily (Jocelyn Lopez), and Corey (Catie DuPont) look at their phones. Instantly, the concept of teenagers surrounded by peaceful greenery yet fixated on the Internet hit like a one-ton bag of dandelions.

While sharing a TikTok dare video, Hannah explains that the game they’re watching is called Sweet Relief. In it, you need to pray to the Sweet Angel to kill the person you think should die the most. If, by chance, the Angel “chooses” you, you must kill that person yourself. Otherwise, you die.

The girls play carelessly but are taught a lesson when the Angel chooses them.

This may be the time when you guess every plot point until the credits, but you would be jumping way too far ahead and in the wrong direction.

Hannah effortlessly takes the authority role, and we follow the trio to the house of Lily’s chosen victim, her ex-babysitter, Denise (Erica Pinto). The three girls chip in and murder Denise quickly. This was a remarkable way to convey the idea that the Angel picked them since we don’t get confirmation until the end.

Before we get to our next deadly consequence of the game, we follow Hannah home and experience the psychological shit she has to swim in every day. Her mother, Deborah (Jane Karakula), and her estranged older brother, Nathan (Adam Michael Kozik), are fighting about Deborah’s Internet obsession, brought on by boredom and the crackpot high school teacher next door, Mr. McDaniel (Paul Lazar, the “cheeseburgers and beer” entomologist from Silence of the Lambs).

Then, we cut to a deserted, empty park, where a teenage boy meets up with a dangerous predator.

Gerald (B. R. Yeager) tells the boy he’s undercover and watching the neighborhood for young hoodlums committing crimes. Before we know exactly how dangerous and disgusting Gerald is, we immediately know he’s not someone to be trusted. From the first moment we meet him, he presents like a pedophilic groomer, using his status as (supposedly) an undercover cop to groom his victims.

He grooms teenagers by telling them to be his special spies in high school to see who has what drugs. But really, he’s making them feel special, useful, and appreciated to weaken them and gain their trust. He bro-talks to his latest victim.

“You got a girlfriend? No? You’re fuckin’ though, right? You can tell me. I’m the nicest guy around, you ask anybody. I can get you all the pussy you want; you stick with me, kid.”

Another new character enters the fray: Nathan’s girlfriend Jess (Alisa Leigh), a sore subject in Hannah’s household. Jess is a nurse, and it is instantly obvious she doesn’t like her job or her life in general. She seems lost and sad about the mundane downward spiral her relationship with Nathan has taken.

As the film progresses, her problematic need for excitement becomes deadly when she has an intricate and lengthy encounter with Gerald.

Sweet Relief has an odd energy, something akin to Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Lucky McKee’s The Woman, or the quieter moments of Darren Aronofsky’s melancholic Requiem For A Dream. There’s a disturbing feeling of hopelessness, joylessness, and small-town disgust. Roadways that go nowhere scar the landscape, yet there is a sense of being trapped in the freest, most open place in the world.

An abundance of attention is paid to nature and a peculiar fixation on weeds and overgrowth. The long takes (especially the final scene) are essential to understanding the feelings Verdi wishes to convey—every frame of a long take is meant to tell the story. Read the faces of the actors and take it all in; soak up every second.

Like small-town America itself, there is much more beneath the deceptive surface of Sweet Relief than you might suspect at first glance. 

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4

Take 2 (Stephanie Malone)

Sweet Relief

In a quiet, small New England town, where ennui and loneliness drip from every corner of this serene but stifling “nothing ever happens here” prison, an unnerving internet phenomenon has taken hold, captivating the minds of the young people and terrifying parents and teachers.

The titular Sweet Relief is an online murder challenge in which players must nominate someone they’d like to see die.

Our story begins with three teenage girls who play the game as a joke, unaware of the dire consequences awaiting them. Hannah is the ringleader who persuades her friends to play despite their initial hesitation and discomfort over the dark nature of the game… even if it is just a stupid joke.

For Hannah, the game is an escape from her dreary reality. Her older brother and lifeline, Nathan, has just moved out of the home and in with his girlfriend, Jess. Hannah and her mom see the move as a betrayal, placing the blame squarely on Jess’s shoulders. Hannah is left alone with her aging mother, who has become fraught over disturbing social media posts from creepy next-door neighbor and high school teacher Mr. McDaniel, warning the community about the dangers of Sweet Relief.

Lurking among the unsuspecting denizens of this sleepy town is at least one monster, a “reformed” killer turned police informant named Gerald. He’s despicable even before the extent of his dirty deeds is revealed, and he’s easy to despise—a narcissistic predator with an overinflated sense of self and a demeanor dripping in sleaze. His dubious association with the law brings deep concerns about the corrupt nature of small-town politics and community policing.

When the storylines of these characters eventually converge in an explosive and highly satisfying final act, this oasis will become a hellscape that the town may never recover from.

Sweet Relief is the kind of microbudget, off-the-beaten-path horror film that’s destined to polarize audiences.

It’s not particularly polished, and that feels entirely by design.

That DIY, slice-of-life, somewhat off-putting approach serves the film well in its gritty exploration of America’s underbelly, where horrors great and small lurk amidst picturesque scenery and seemingly benign neighborhoods.

Melodramatic music plays during times of violence and is often cranked up to a level that drowns out the spoken dialogue. It feels discordant, giving viewers a sense of unease. It’s meant to disorient, contrasting the After-School Special feel of sanitized suburbia with the dark and dangerous reality of the world that’s seeped into their imagined sanctuary via the big, bad internet.

There’s an amateur aspect to the way shots are constructed, the mumblecore style of the dialogue, shots that linger far too long, and pacing that demands patience. This sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. While I suspect it will turn off many viewers, there’s a method to this madness, and it works exceedingly well if you give it a chance to take hold of you.

Writer-director Nick Verdi’s SWEET RELIEF wants to make you feel comfortable, even a little bored. He wants you to feel like nothing is really happening… until it does. That’s intentional.

As viewers, we’re meant to channel the characters’ mental state—listless people who feel trapped in a perpetual state of sameness, where everyone knows everyone else’s business and moments of true joy or excitement are hard to come by.

It’s a droll existence where all anyone wants is for something, ANYTHING, to come in and shake up their world.

It’s into this pressure cooker of perpetual restlessness and dysphoria that the dark side of the internet creeps in — where the “outside” evil meets the evil “inside” — tapping into those oft-hidden recesses of the human mind where the real horror lies.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4
SWEET RELIEF was screened for this review at the Chattanooga Film Festival 2024 as part of the festival’s hybrid programming. Domestically, it has been picked up as the debut release for Art Brut Films, which plans a limited theatrical run later this year.  

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