Sweetness in the Belly

Movie review by
Joyce Slaton, Common Sense Media
Sweetness in the Belly Movie Poster Image
Deeply felt drama about one woman's refugee experience.
  • NR
  • 2020
  • 110 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Messages of humility and courage are evident, with sincere religious practice as well as acts of kindness and daring prominent. Clearly recognizes privileges that Lilly gets in contrast with other Ethiopian refugees. When she says she didn't ask for her apartment in London, a fellow homeless refugee says "You didn't have to."

Positive Role Models & Representations

Lilly and Amina have a touchingly genuine friendship that springs up after an act of kindness on Lilly's part. Lilly is a positive role model, a woman who's serious about religion and her duty to others. Characters put themselves in danger to help others -- a risk that generally pays off. 


Protesters and military violence (soldiers march with guns and push others over), typically seen from a distance -- e.g., on television or from the windows of a bus. Characters talk about beatings, imprisonment, torture, but viewers don't see many visuals, except one character standing in bloody clothing as the sound of a gun cocking is heard.


Characters have nongraphic sex, with moaning and movements; kissing shown. Aziz's uncle passes by Aziz and Lilly kissing on a terrace and says that Aziz is going to "ruin" Lilly and should at least do it privately. A woman tells a story about offering sex to soldiers in exchange for her safety and her child's. 

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A character has a shot of alcohol; another says they've "tasted alcohol" but notes that it's forbidden to Muslims. Characters chew khat leaves (a stimulant that's legal in Ethiopia) at a get-together; one character's eyes seem to be dilated afterward, and she acts a bit spacey.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Sweetness in the Belly is a drama based on Camilla Gibb's same-named novel. It tells the story of Lilly (Dakota Fanning), a woman born to English parents who grows up at a Sufi shrine in Ethiopia before emigrating to London. Lilly is a powerful role model who works hard to improve her own life and the lives of others; she's also a Muslim who practices her religion faithfully. The movie is frank about the privileges she gets as a light-skinned refugee. A romance springs up between Lilly and an Ethiopian man. They have sex with moaning and movements, but no nudity; they also kiss. A woman tells a story about having sex with soldiers to keep her family safe. Violence, including scenes in which armed soldiers push people on streets and protesters scream, is generally viewed from a distance, such as on television or from far away. But there's one scene in which a character in bloody clothes stands waiting to be killed (a gun is heard cocking off-screen). Viewers also hear about, but don't see, prisoners of war being tortured and beaten. Characters chew khat (a legal stimulant in Ethiopia) and drink liquor, but not to excess. Characters also show extensive humility and courage in pulling together to help others when it's needed.

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What's the story?

Adapted from Camilla Gibb's same-named novel, SWEETNESS IN THE BELLY tells the story of Lilly (Dakota Fanning), an Englishwoman who was orphaned at the age of 8 and left at an Ethiopian Sufi shrine, where she grew up studying the Koran. She begins teaching the holy book to young students. She also kindles a romance with Aziz (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a doctor she meets by chance. When the fall of Haile Selassie makes Ethiopia a dangerous place to be, Lilly escapes to England, where she starts working on behalf of Ethiopian immigrants, helping reunite war-torn families. 

Is it any good?

This deeply felt character study tells a story that viewers haven't seen before -- one that will hit emotional buttons. Fanning is a mesmerizing Lilly: Physically still and given to few words, she nonetheless draws you into the life of this unusual woman, who's as disconnected in her immigrant community in London as she was in Ethiopia. And yet she finds meaningful ways to connect both to others and to her own inner life. We see her working tirelessly to survive and to help those around her who need help even more than she does. 

It's easy to root for Lilly, for the downtrodden people who flee a dangerous situation in hopes of a better life, and for the romance that springs up between Lilly and the magnetic Aziz. And the film's visuals are fascinating: women roasting green coffee beans in the morning, a meeting group of politically involved Ethiopian people who get together to chew khat and criticize Haile Selassie on television, lines of women in vibrant veils at the market and on the bus. In less sure hands, Sweetness in the Belly could be all treacle and cringe; instead, it makes you want to live your life like Lilly -- or at least to hang out with her a bit longer. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how Sweetness in the Belly portrays the plight of immigrants. How does this depiction compare to that of other films about immigrants? What challenges did Lilly face? How are those challenges different from those of today's immigrants?

  • The movie explores issues of ethnicity, religion, and gender in Ethiopia and England in the 1970s. How does being of English heritage distinguish Lilly from her Ethiopian friends and neighbors? How often do people mention her "otherness"? How often does she seem to fit in? 

  • How does Lilly demonstrate humility and courage in Sweetness in the Belly? Why are these important character strengths?

Movie details

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