A stripped-down, white knuckle thriller
Some of you will remember the significant studio hand wringing and press around the stretch of Castaway (2000) in which Tom Hanks must anchor the film entirely alone (and largely silently) on an island. Hanks succeeded and deserved accolades were doled out.
J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart more or less says “fuck it, let’s make a whole movie like that”. With sparse plotting, minimal exposition, and an extremely small cast, Kiersey Clemons (Dope, Hearts Beat Loud) absolutely commands the screen as Jenn, a castaway who determines that she’s not as alone on this deserted island as she wants to be.
Told with absolutely no fat whatsoever, we begin underwater as the camera tracks up above the surface and finds its way to an unconscious Jenn, washed up on the beach with a life jacket on. The script (Dillard & Alex Hyner) walks us through all kinds of classic and smart desert island tropes as Jenn assesses her surroundings, gathers supplies, and gets to the business of surviving. Through efficient writing and showing-not-telling, we begin to learn some of the circumstances of Jenn’s marooning, along with clues and signs that a creature is stirring.
I won’t spoil Sweetheart, but it’s safe to say it is indeed a creature feature. And beyond that the beauty is in the execution, really. Lean and mean at 1 hour and 22 minutes, there’s a simple slow burn kept engaging throughout by Clemons’ lead performance and Dillard’s efficiency as a writer/director.
The execution of the creature itself is marvelous, with Jaws-inspired fleeting glimpses giving way to more gradual revelations of just what kind of monster we’re dealing with here. A combination of “man in suit” style practical monster magic and modern computer generated imagery is used for the visuals, and a pretty glorious sound design brings the vocalizations of this creature to life as well. Sweetheart doles out just enough mystery to keep the creature (and Jenn) intriguing and ultimately ratchets up to a highly satisfying confrontation between woman and beast.
Dillard is a refreshing new up and coming genre filmmaker who makes his talents clear in what he puts up on screen. In speaking with the Fantastic Fest audience, he made a point to say he enjoys depicting black people in fun big screen situations. In that regard he succeeds wonderfully with Sweetheart by handing the on screen reins to Kiersey Clemons and letting her anchor a rip-roaring monster thriller where we can enjoy with subtlety the victory of black girls fighting back.
And I’m Out.
Sweetheart will be available digitally on 10/22/2019 from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment