SPOILERS FOLLOW FOR THE NETFLIX MOVIE SWEET GIRL, BE AWARE
The cool thing about being an American is that you probably have had an absolutely awful experience with the American health care system. It’s expensive as hell, and byzantine with rules, and good luck if you need a referral or you need to go to the hospital, and insurance doesn’t cover much unless you’re extremely wealthy anyway, and if you are, then you probably have a concierge to hook you up with everything and you don’t have to spend days in emergency rooms or weeks waiting for a doctor’s appointment, like us poors. Of the rest of us, more than two-thirds who file for bankruptcy will do so because of medical-related issues or bills. A majority of Americans support Medicare for All, but that shit obviously isn’t happening anytime soon. So if you are not one of us poors, congratulations on your money and your access to Elysium levels of medicine that further stratify our classes and are crushing us all into dust. Must be nice.
I say this from personal bitterness compounded by my recent viewing of the new Jason Momoa Netflix movie, Sweet Girl, which Kayleigh so kindly reviewed for us. I enjoy Momoa deeply (I have seen this man; I have loins) and when the log line for this film—which he also produced—was announced, I was down. Momoa hunting down pharma execs responsible for blocking a drug to market that would have saved his wife? Yes! OK! Good! Reality has established that pharma execs are, nearly uniformly, terrible! Remember him? And her? Ugh! To all of it!
What a disappointment, then, when Sweet Girl doesn’t actually make the pharma execs its real villains. Bear with me here, because this twist is so dumb (and so ill-advised) that I remain seething. (The film’s other main twist is also very silly, but I don’t have the energy in my brain or my body to tackle that, too.) So Momoa plays blue-collar dude Ray Cooper, who lives in Pittsburgh with his wife Amanda (Adria Arjona) and daughter Rachel (Isabela Merced). Ray and Amanda are very much in love, and do a little Last of the Mohicans homage with her, “What ya looking at, man?” and his responding “I’m looking at you, woman.” Then Amanda gets very sick with cancer, and Ray and Rachel are hopeless until Amanda’s oncologist tells them about a new drug, Spero, hitting the market that would specifically help. Hope again! And then hopelessness again when the drug is pulled before it ever becomes available.
Spero is a generic version of a very expensive drug, Infirmam, that the Coopers can no longer afford because they’ve already gone bankrupt over Amanda’s care, and Ray is enraged when he learns that it was Infirmam’s manufacturer, BioPrime, who paid Spero’s manufacturer to keep it off the market. Rich people, like BioPrime executives Simon Keeley (Justin Bartha) and Vinod Shah (Raza Jaffrey) made money, and poor people like Amanda died. I understand that a lot of research and work goes into developing pharmaceuticals and I also think they are price gouged and actually anti-free-market and create another level of economic inequity! I figured we should be on the same page if you are still reading this!
When Ray sees a Patagonia-vest-bedecked Simon on CNN debating Pennsylvania Congresswoman Diana Morgan (Amy Brenneman) on the cost of prescriptions and pharmaceutical drugs, he’s enraged and disgusted by Simon’s flippancy. “The sad reality is that cancer is still very often a death sentence,” Simon says, and then he goes a step further: “What is the cost of spending a little bit more time with a loved one? A year, a month, a day? It’s impossible to put a price on.” Of course, it’s not impossible to put a price on because companies like the fictional BioPrime do it every day, and that price is usually high enough to keep them rolling in profits. But sure, OK, whatever. Simon gets a death threat from Ray for his brushoff (“I will hunt you down and kill you with my bare hands”), and if you think that’s an overreaction toward a pharma exec just doing his job, maybe you should learn more about how life-saving insulin costs hundreds of dollars out of pocket a month for people with diabetes and how the U.S. makes more profits off insulin than any other country in the world. It’s a good time!
Diana, meanwhile, says all the right things, and by “right things” I mean, yes, she sounds like Bernie Sanders. I will lose some of you here, but oh well. Here are some Diana lines: “We all have a basic human right to safe, affordable medication.” “It’s crazy that a pill can cost that much.” Reasonable! Things! So how utterly bizarre and unreasonable that Diana ends up being the big bad in the end! Is it almost like the end of season two of The Boys, when the character who was clearly the show’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez analogue ended up being a head-exploding zealot who had infiltrated the highest levels of government? In fact, it’s just like that! And frankly, it’s very weird to me to make your movie’s villain explicitly a member of the only party that dares to even positively talk about the possibility of universal health care, and to then make their plan for universal health care a Bad Thing!
How the movie gets there is that six months after Amanda’s death, a journalist approaches Ray about connections he’s made between BioPrime and “multiple offshore shell corporations” engaging in bribery and coverups with “other players at both the state and federal level.” An assassin kills the journalist shortly thereafter. Then, Diana gets onstage with the BioPrime execs and announces a “bipartisan bill” with the support of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health that would “effectively cap the cost of treatment” of certain diseases. Hundreds of thousands of people will benefit, and “We are cleaning out the rot,” Diana announces. So screenwriters Gregg Hurwitz and Philip Eisner put Trump-like words in the mouth of a Bernie-like character. Cool, got it, “populism bad,” thank you for that lesson.
The fact that this new bill will help other families who are in a situation similar to his doesn’t stop Ray, and so he hunts down Simon and Vinod, learning in the process that the former is a drunk and the latter is a manipulator and they’re both scumbags. But each of them also insists that they are not really pulling the strings here. “You have no idea what you’re getting into,” Simon whines; “We can get to anyone,” Vinod brags. But jigga what goes down when Ray kills Simon, but the assassin Amos Santos (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), working for another mysterious boss, kills Vinod. So who is paying Amos? Why, Diana, of course!
Yes, it makes no sense. It makes no sense that BioPrime, a pharma company, would bribe Diana, a state representative, to get on board with their deal to … charge less for their medications? Zero sense. No sense. I am not arguing with the pharma bribes part of this, but the BioPrime paying off Diana to effectively limit their own profits part of this. State representatives don’t even have that much power! Diana isn’t even a senator! And yet she somehow generates enough heat to have a major Big Pharma company in her pocket? How could she offer BioPrime the “exclusive contracts” the film claims she extends to them after taking their bribe? We don’t even know what her pre-politics job was! “I wrestled them into submission. I got them to lower their prices.” … Really? I am very skeptical here! And the best/worst part of all this is that Diana’s primary motivation is campaign money for her senatorial run, as if the Supreme Court wasn’t recently like, “No, please, super PACs are more people than people, it’s fine.” Wash your dirty money, Diana, without needing to hire an assassin! This isn’t The Pelican Brief! Work smarter, not harder!
Sweet Girl doesn’t even play it coy with Diana’s political affiliation, a la The Manchurian Candidate, a Perfect Film. Instead, Sweet Girl explicitly makes Diana a progressive Democrat (raised fist as her logo; “For the people, for a change” as her slogan), and then explicitly makes her power-hungry, hypocritical, and corrupt. “Big business and corporate interests have corroded our politics” is a line that could go either political-party way, and Sweet Girl could have at least been making a both-sides statement about how insane it is that from 1999 to 2018, “the pharmaceutical and health product industry spent $4.7 billion, an average of $233 million per year, on lobbying the US federal government,” according to a 2020 JAMA Internal Medicine article by Olivier J. Wouters, PhD. But explicitly making the head-honcho villain, the mastermind of this scheme and the woman somehow pulling the strings of these two CEOs and commanding her own assassin, a progressive Democrat politician is a Choice, and it’s an extremely bizarre—and dare I say irresponsible?—one.
I’ve written before about how I can extend sympathy and empathy and interest toward characters who behave badly in cinema, and how the argument about “problematic” filmmakers sometimes dulls our capacity for curiosity and compassion. I am not saying that about a movie like Sweet Girl, which intentionally and explicitly evokes the benefits and appeal of universal health care (“We voted for [it],” Rachel reminds her father, which raises even more questions about the state of this film’s fictional political world) but then demonizes the only politician it shows working for it. Coupled with Netflix’s propensity for pro-military original films, it stinks. That’s not “both-sides” open-mindedness; it’s ideological assassination masquerading as objectivity. Take note, Chris Evans. This path leads nowhere good.
Sweet Girl is now streaming on Netflix.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix