Titling a movie about a woman stranded on an island that may or may not be infested with monsters Sweetheart doesn’t seem right. The title gives no clear indication of what’s about to unfold. And so you watch, wondering, why is this the title of this movie? Then the reason hits you.
Sweetheart has a lot of those moments, where you think the movie is one thing and it drastically changes to be something else. At first, it’s a survival movie, as a young woman named Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself stranded on a deserted island. Later, it’s a monster movie, as Jenn does her best to stay alive when she realizes she’s not exactly the only living creature on the island.
In between, it becomes the story of a woman who finds herself through a series of seemingly minor successes in the direst of circumstances, like killing her own food. Then, eventually, she patronizingly gets called “sweetheart” by another character but she is not taking that shit anymore. That is no longer who she is.
With his second narrative feature, director JD Dillard unfolds a simple narrative with great interest and complexity. As Jenn walks around this island—finding items, making fire, and collecting information—so too is the audience, as we wait with anxious anticipation to see what’s next. An unforgettable shot with a flare gun later, we know exactly what’s going to happen. Jenn has to survive not just the island, but something else—a mysterious presence that has a past and origin all its own. And yet, Dillard largely seems unconcerned about those mysteries. We don’t immediately know why Jenn is on the island, how she got there, or what she was like before. And once another character is introduced, that character has no real raison d’être either. Dillard is only interested in Jenn dealing with an increasingly horrible situation and surviving, no matter what the cost.
Further into the film, we do get a few answers to the hows and whys. By that time though, Dillard’s hooks are in and it’s clear the answers to those questions don’t matter. Explanations are insignificant to Jenn’s plight. In fact, Dillard almost uses exposition and the past as a weapon to challenge the audience’s preconceptions of who people are versus who people can become. The audience only knows Jenn from now. And yet, as we learn more about Jenn from before, there’s a conflict between what we see and what we hear. The fact that the Jenn on the island is seemingly different from Jenn before the island is a notion Dillard certainly wants us to wrestle with.
However, most of those debates or themes are largely left in the subtext of a story, a story that slowly morphs from Castaway to Predator as Jenn and her enemy continually increase their efforts. Dillard doesn’t shy away from the elements of horror as a genre either. Sweetheart is largely undefinable because it draws from so many different places: horror, drama, character study, creature feature, mystery, and more. By the end, though, there’s no doubt this subtle rumination on self becomes something even bigger and more exciting than what you’re expecting.
Dillard’s first film, Sleight, was solid but Sweetheart is a vast improvement. It’s a mysterious, exciting, engrossing movie that proves popcorn movies come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes several contradicting shapes and sizes at the same time.
Sweetheart recently played Fantastic Fest 2019 and will be coming to digital and on-demand October 22. Here’s the trailer.
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