Directed by: Jonathan Cuartas. Starring: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell. Runtime: 1h 29 min. Released: This film had its North American Premiere at Nightstream on October 9, 2020.
This review contains minor spoilers.
I just love films that can find a balance between moody horror and powerful family drama, and My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To is just the latest to do this so well as it takes a look at vampirism as a disease and how it affects a family.
Thomas (Owen Campbell) is the afflicted member who survives on blood. He gets this blood because of his brother Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), who spend their existence taking care of Thomas and killing homeless people or prostitutes to keep Thomas going, and they quite literally take it day by day. It is not much of an existence, but it is theirs.
Writer/director Jonathan Cuartas portrays this family dynamic so well of just being forced to stay in this life because he’s their brother, and just the sense of duty they have towards him. The family dynamic is so intriguing because Fugit’s Dwight has trouble coping with the deaths, as it really takes an emotional and moral toll on him.
We begin to understand his loneliness because of this situation, and it creates a truly engaging character study with Dwight as we’re able to sympathize with him throughout. It’s great to see Fugit in this sincere role, as I feel like it’s been a long time since we’ve seen him get a character this good.
On the other side, Ingrid Sophie Schram is great as Jessie. The character comes off as cold, but it’s because she knows what must be done and at times is the only one who can do it. She’s detached herself emotionally from these victims, as Dwight still sees them as people and Jessie seems to see them as necessity. Either way, this opposition of how both siblings handle this is truly compelling.
The family drama takes a bit to get going if you’re expecting a traditional horror film, but I realized fairly early this would be patiently paced. Thomas himself is an interesting character, too, sharing in Dwight’s loneliness as Dwight and Jessie are the only people he knows, so Thomas starts to want to rebel, giving it an aspect that flirts with coming-of-age.
Campbell captures the frailty of the character well, as a person just trying to survive the disease he’s been given. That’s what makes My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To so relatable, as well, as this could be any family having to take care of him, but it’s just imagined as a horror extreme and he happens to have vampirism.
There’s also a lot of decent gore here with a couple of genuinely creepy moments. The horror is born out of how unpredictable some of these situations are, especially because of Dwight’s second doubts about kidnapping people, which makes these scenes more engaging. Cuartas’ layered screenplay is able to make even these minor characters relatable – especially Eduardo (Moises L. Tavar) – as we become emotionally attached to them because they’re good people. In general, the emotional stakes (no pun intended) are fantastic in this film.
I was mostly surprised by how emotionally attached I was to these characters, and this is thanks to the performances by both Fugit and Campbell. Truly, Schram is great too, but she’s just great for different reasons, as you can’t always sympathize with her. Regardless, she helps make the family dynamic portrayed here something special. And truly, this is a special film that holds surprising, raw power, and is a unique addition to the vampire genre without ever truly bearing its fangs.