Review by James Lindorf
Sweetheart from Blumhouse and the producers of Get Out and The Purge franchise puts a creature-feature spin on the survival film genre. Jenn, Dope’s Kiersey Clemons, finds herself alone on a small tropical island after her boat goes down. By day, all of her strength and focus is on finding food, water, and just outlasting the elements until she can be found. After sunset, her fight for survival takes an entirely different form. Jenn must use every ounce of cunning and courage to survive an amphibious monster that claims dominion over the island and its surrounding waters. Sweetheart was written by JD Dillard (Sleight), Alex Hyner, and Alex Theurer and directed by Dillard. Dillard, Hyner, and Theurer also served as producers alongside Jason Blum. Sweetheart co-stars Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, and Benedict Samuel and will be available on Digital and On-Demand Tuesday, October 22nd.
The connection to the Tom Hanks movie Castaway, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year, is undeniable. Alone on a tropical island with random items, including a dead body, that wash up on shore and aid in the characters’ survival, Jenn even attempts a desperate plan to take a makeshift raft to salvation or death. When it comes to base survival, Chuck Noland wishes he had things as easy as Jenn. It is a safe bet to say that there has never been a survival film with so many costume changes. Previous visitors to the island left behind a lot of supplies that make life easier for Jenn. Even the weather is always on her side. The writers were correct that the focus should be on her fight with the monster, not the island, however, the scales were tipped too far to that end, removing any tension until the creature makes its initial appearance.
Kiersey Clemons is great as Jenn, and strangely enough, better alone or with the monster than when she is sharing the screen with other people. It could be because the other characters are underdeveloped and have only the most basic motivations. Sweetheart is almost wordless for the first half of its runtime. With her shorter stay on the island, she didn’t find the need for a character like Wilson. With a protagonist who doesn’t feel the need to share her thoughts for the audience’s sake, key ideas and concepts have to be primarily conveyed in visual ways. Whether it is as simple as a half-eaten shark or as cutesy as a book of scary campfire stories, plenty of foreshadowing should keep viewers interested. Through it all, Clemons conveys her desperation, fascination, joy, and fear in captivating ways.
Unfortunately, the creature is unable to live up to the bar set by Clemons. It is a good concept and mostly filmed well, but falls short in its construction. The small bulldog-meets-shark head cannot stand up to the full light of day and does not fit the massive size of the rest of its body. Thankfully it is mostly shown at night and kept to the shadows where it is at its strongest.
For this to be his second feature-length film, it is clear that Dillard has plenty of talent and could be poised for a significant breakout. The film benefits from substantial production contributions all around, including Stefan Duscio’s ability to capture the Fijian setting in beautiful widescreen, Gina Hirsch’s tight editing, and Charles Scott IV’s threatening score. Sweetheart is very well made, but lacks the impact or originality necessary to win over a massive audience. Its fate seems to be locked in two possible outcomes: it may be quickly forgotten, or if Dillard hits the big time, it could find a second life as a cult classic.