A great premise can generally only take you so far, but films that stick to them and don’t get distracted can sometimes in turn achieve greatness. Blumhouse’s Sweetheart takes the conventional and familiar survival story and turns it on its head with a tale of self-discovery, empowerment, and monster-fighting in what can best be described as Cast Away meets Cloverfield.
Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) wakes up one day and finds herself on an isolated island in the middle of the ocean. She’s shipwrecked, and her only companion has a chunk of coral jutting from his stomach. Without wasting a second, Jenn pulls her friend from the water, yanks the coral, and stops the bleeding with a makeshift bandage. Sadly, it’s too late, as her companion dies that night–and that’s when the problems begin.
For the first half hour, Sweetheart focuses on your standard castaway story, with Jenn finding water, refuge, and food. Director JD Dillard (Sleight) makes his return to Sundance and Blumhouse stand out with a keen eye for performance and emotion, despite relying almost entirely on Clemons’ mostly mute performance. Indeed, in a refreshing move, Jenn doesn’t get a volleyball to talk to, so there’s no thinking out loud for most of the film, and instead she conveys all emotion and information through exquisitely nuanced yet powerful facial expressions that say more than a dozen monologues. To compensate for the lack of dialogue (and the score, which is also very minimalistic), the movie’s outstanding sound design does most of the work.
Jenn is also not your typical shipwreck survivor. She is one of the smartest and most composed castaways we’ve seen onscreen in years. As she follows the usual procedure for fictional island survivors, you can tell Jenn is familiar with every story and film about island survival there is, and she adapts to every situation without breaking a sweat. Before you notice she’s already learned how to use small fish as bait to catch bigger fish, and how to build a makeshift spear to hunt. It doesn’t come across as overpowered or exaggerated, and it’s all thanks to Clemons’ performance ,which sells you on her problems but also on her way of thinking and excitement as she figures things out.
Of course, this being Blumhouse and JD Dillard, everything is not as it seems, and the island has plenty of dark secrets. As Jenn tries to stay alive she starts seeing mutilated fish wash up on shore, and her friend’s body suddenly disappears from its grave overnight. Then there’s also that huge sinkhole in the bottom of the ocean.
Sweetheart eventually becomes one of the best creature features in recent years. Dillard and his cinematographer Stefan Duscio use lighting to build a sense of menace and fear of the unknown. The movie is dark, but never without purpose. We are stuck with the same knowledge and visibility as Jenn, and as she runs away we catch only glimpses of whatever pursues her. The production design and VFX team deserve credit for their fantastic work.
Even when the film deviates from its sweet and short premise, it expands the world of the film and provides subtle but important background for Jenn, even though they don’t feel necessary. As she finally gets to speak with someone, we get hints at other monsters and abuse she has already faced before. It’s a great way to address how hard it can be for women to speak up about abuses they’ve suffered, without being too on the nose or deviating too much.
With a brisk and concise runtime of 82 minutes, Sweetheart accomplishes a lot without wasting a moment. Its brilliant lead performance carries much of the film, with beautiful visuals that descent into a thrilling and heart-stopping creature feature.
|The Good||The Bad|
|Kiersey Clemons’ nuanced performance||Late characters introductions are distracting|
|Terrifying creature design||Unmemorable title|
|Brilliant balance of genres|