After an apparent shipwreck, Jenn washes ashore on a remote tropical island. As if having to survive stranded on an island isn’t bad enough, as night falls Jenn realizes a deadly creature uses this island as its hunting ground. Jenn will have to battle the elements, dehydration, starvation, and the creature in order to survive.
This thrilling new aquatic horror film is directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight, Judy Goose). Dillard also co-wrote Sweetheart along with Alex Theurer (Sleight, Intervention) and Alex Hyner, this being Hyner’s first feature film. The film opens as Jenn awakes on the shore of the tropic island. She has to quickly come to terms with the shipwreck, the likelihood that all her friends are dead, and how she will live on the island until found. Jenn proves to be a very resourceful woman, even as she is forced to fend off creature attacks each night. I’ve always been a fan of aquatic horror films, especially those with unique creatures. Sweetheart not only delivers a fantastic creature feature that is exciting to watch, but it also gives the audience a heroine they can root for.
Sweetheart may be a great creature feature, but it is also very well written. Since Jenn is on the island alone for a majority of the film, there is very little dialogue. The story is told primarily through action, which is very difficult to do in this day and age. There has to be a balance of action and exposition in order to hold the audience’s interest. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner do a phenomenal job of maintaining this balance throughout the film. They even know when to inject moments where Jenn speaks to herself to break up the silence. Similarly, the audience only learns things as Jenn reveals them or as they are revealed to her. This leaves certain plot points a mystery. While for the most part it works well, there is one plot point that alludes to the fate of a character. While it works in the sense that we only learn as much as Jenn does, it seems almost unnecessary. It hints at something that never becomes important by the end of the film.
What I found most compelling about the writing is the subtext. There are multiple references in Sweetheart to whether or not Jenn is a trustworthy person. It references how women, especially women of color, often have a hard time getting people to believe them. In this film it’s to make people believe there is a ravenous monster lurking in the water. In the real world, it’s to make cops or other people believe they have been abused, raped, or any number of other terrible things. It’s a not-so-subtle subtext that fits in perfectly with the horror genre.
The film has a small cast, each performance being great. Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners, Dope) absolutely carries the film with her performance as Jenn. The way Jenn adapts to her situation and does what she can to defend herself is fascinating to watch. Clemons perfectly portrays Jenn’s resilience as well as her striking ability to accept her situation and rise above it. Another vital and entertaining performance comes from Andrew Crawford (Alien: Covenant, Little Monsters) as the creature. While this isn’t a speaking role, Crawford breaks through the screen as an imposing and terrifying monster. There is also an elegance about the creature and the way it moves. These two opposing forces make for quite the power struggle.
Visually, Sweetheart has a lot going for it. The tropical setting is absolutely gorgeous, which makes the presence of a monster stand out. The setting is enhanced by some absolutely gorgeous cinematography by Stefan Duscio. Duscio especially has a way of using natural light sources, such as the sunset and fire, to enhance the scene and draw the eye to specific things on screen. Then there is the creature design. In a film where there are really two characters, Jenn and the creature, the design of the creature becomes a vital piece of the film. Luckily, the filmmakers chose to go with a practical monster design that is as terrifying as it is sleek. It looks like something that could exist in the tropical setting, living in the ocean and hunting on land. Some of the creature effects are enhanced by CGI, but it’s clear that for the most part it is practically made.
Sweetheart is equal parts monster survival movie and social commentary film. Dillard, Theurer, and Hyner prove to be a fantastic filmmaking trio. They create a film with minimal dialogue that tells a powerful story of survival, resilience, and strength. While there are one or two extraneous aspects that never become fully-formed subplots, they don’t necessarily detract from the primary focus of the film. It is still a stunning film with a frightening creature and an important message: believe women.
OVERALL RATING: 7.5/10
[…] I had a really hard time choosing between a few films to take this spot on my list, but ultimately Sweetheart stuck with me more than the others. Released on Netflix just before the end of the year, this film by J.D. Dillard brings together the thrills of an aquatic monster film with the deeper message of a social commentary film. I wish Blumhouse had done a bit more to get the word out about Sweetheart. It has great creature design/effects, a strong performance from Kiersey Clemons, and sends an important message. Full review here. […]