It’s extremely rare that I see something that makes me stop and think “this is just extremely my shit” as often as I did during Sweetheart, the sharply-scripted, smartly-directed creature feature from Sleight filmmaker J.D. Dillard. Produced by Blumhouse, Sweetheart is a genre-hybrid character study of Kiersey Clemons‘ Jenn, part survival movie, part monster movie, part relationship drama; all centered around how the young woman finally learns what she’s capable of when she wakes up stranded on a small island… and soon discovers a monster lives there too.
Dillard proves himself a master of resourceful filmmaking here and wastes no time getting to business. Sweetheart begins as the young woman wakes up on the shore of the abandoned tropical island. Stirring as the water laps at her feet, a fellow survivor of her mysterious ship crash washed up alongside her — except he’s got a giant piece of coral stuck in his chest, living just long enough to mutter the ominous last words “Did you see it?” before drawing his last breath. For her part, Jenn doesn’t have time to process what that “it” might be, muttering only a soft “what?” before getting to work on figuring out how to survive this wild new terrain she calls a temporary home.
There’s a lot to love about Sweetheart, but chief among them is Clemon’s spectacular turn as Jenn and Dillard’s constant faith in both his actress and his character. Dillard co-wrote the script with Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer, and with the backing of Clemon’s thoroughly commanding performance, they endow Jenn with unwavering competence and utter lack of hysterics. That becomes crucial as the film’s deeper themes start to connect, but in the near-dialogue-free first act, it’s an absolutely refreshing portrayal of a woman in peril. Whether she’s discovering the bloated torso of a former fellow shipmate, learning how to spear hunt and gut fish for food, or trying to find a sustainable source of water, Jenn keeps her cool just enough to get by.
Of course, she’s keeping focus so well she doesn’t take heed of the dizzyingly giant hole at the bottom of the seafloor or the worrisome corpses of the sea life on shore, like a severed shark’s head with deep crimson gashes down the side. That is, until she discovers the full threat lurking on the island in one of the film’s most striking moments of monster imagery. Few monsters have ever had a better introduction. The hulking figure emerges from the ocean shore in a nightmarish, flare-lit sequence and you get the full sense of Jenn’s dread with a little more than a spare but perfectly-staged creature reveal and an equally on-point reaction from Clemons.
The creature’s first intro may be the film’s most memorable moment, but it’s certainly not the only one. Dillard’s got quite a bag of tricks for making his low-budget stretch as far as possible, leaning on Clemons to do the heavy lifting in the absence of big-budget effects and with few exceptions, showing a great instinct for exactly how much to show off his monster and when. As for the beasty himself, he’s a gooey amphibian man-in-suit monster designed by Bad Robot regular Neville Page (Cloverfield, Super 8) and performed by Andrew Crawford.
It’s clear this is a monster movie made by a monster lover and you can feel the DNA of the greats — from Alien to Predator — in the way Dillard stages his sequences to make the most of his modest means. It helps that a Fiji island is a naturally gorgeous setting, but Dillard takes care to keep the film textured, providing level changes and washes of color by embracing the various “sets” on the island; a hammock, a bright red raft, and a hollowed-out tree trunk all provide distinctly different staging grounds for Jenn’s showdowns with the monster, and Dillard uses each new location to spice up the film with new forms of tension-building.
Ultimately, Sweetheart is an excellent, lean and mean creature feature that proves Dillard’s resourcefulness as a filmmaker and eye for making monster magic. The film loses a little bit of that raw power when the third act brings some new survivors to the island, and while those themes drive home the resonant thematic message (if you’re wondering why in god’s name anyone would name a monster movie Sweetheart, I assure you there’s a satisfying reason) there’s no denying they’re less engrossing to watch. Thank goodness then that Dillard wastes little time getting back to the monster action, setting up one last grand confrontation that drives home Dillard’s knack for leaving just enough offscreen and Clemons’ portrayal of Jenn as one of the lowkey great horror heroines.
From the perfectly circular hole in the ocean — an absolute nightmare trigger of evocative imagery — to the creature’s vaguely human physique, Sweetheart tees up a world of mysteries you’ll want to explore, preferably with a giant monster-hunting weapon in hand. But like most of the greats in the genre, Dillard only gives us a keyhole view into the larger mysteries, leaving behind a lingering sense of mystery that keeps the film re-playing in my mind.
So yeah, this one is, again, extremely my shit. And for some ungodly reason it’s being dumped on VOD next month, so be sure to put Sweetheart on your radar and watch it on the biggest screen you can find.
Sweetheart screened at Fantastic Fest 2019 and arrives on VOD and Blu-ray on October 22, 2019.