Directed by: J.D. Hillard. Starring: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence. Runtime: 1h 22 min. Released: October 15, 2019 (premiered at Sundance; January 28, 2019).
A mediocre survival horror-thriller that premiered at last year’s Sundance, Sweetheart blends Cast Away and creature feature, as Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) finds herself stranded alone on an island as she tries to survive and deal with a mysterious malevolent force.
There are some great moments in Sweetheart, especially our first look at the monster from afar – it’s a striking visual as a flare flies above the water and we see him out there and the film’s score sounds – but the film never lives up to its promise of the interesting idea. Stefan Duscio’s cinematography is strong and it looks well-manicured, but the storytelling side of it is vague.
Jenn doesn’t get much in terms of development as when we meet her, she washes up with another friend, Brad (Benedict Samuel), who immediately dies. Things get intriguing later when her boyfriend Lucas (Emory Cohen) and their friend Mia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) shows up because it seems to promise some development, but it remains vague because of minimal dialogue.
The most we know about Jenn is that she’s a pathological liar so when she tells them there’s a monster on the island, it takes on the Boy Who Cried Wolf fable, but it’s Girl Who Cried Sea Monster. The film does not delve into its characters as much as it should.
There are multiple moments where the film hints at possible sub-plots, but writers J.D. Hilliard (who also directs), Alex Hyner and Alex Theurer shy away from it. In these instances, it’s because of their priority on action and not dialogue. I think J.D. Hilliard brings solid direction and tension here. We’re contained to the island, but it could have been really cool exploring the monster’s home, a small hole in the ocean’s floor.
The film thrives on our fear of the unknown, so he never shows us, though there’s never a reason for Jenn to go inside and she also has no SCUBA gear. I think it would have been a scary scene – kind-of like when the protagonist investigates the villain’s basement.
In terms of acting, Kiersey Clemons is very good as the lead. I liked Emory Cohen in The Place Beyond the Pines and in Brooklyn, but man, I don’t know if it’s his dialogue here but some of his delivery is weak. I also don’t think it’s a great character.
The film also has no boring moments, and the pacing feels brisk at 82 minutes. This doesn’t do enough with its characters (or story), but three fits better here than just one person stranded. It means a higher body count for the monster side of things. The monster movie aspect is the best part of Sweetheart, and the score keeps things exciting.
The monster isn’t necessarily scary in appearance – he looks like a cousin of Amphibian Man in The Shape of Water, just in a film like Predator – but when we don’t see him and only hear him, the horror is effective. When we see him, it’s not scary, but the monster scenes are fun.
I think the concept is also strong. Kiersey Clemons plays scared well because if there were a creature on my island that could just rip something apart within seconds… Ah, I’d also be trying to get the hell out of there. That’s the thing, though, she can’t really paddle out into the ocean because he’s out there, too. It’s a great concept – it just failed for me in execution.