SWEETHEART is a simple little horror movie from second-time writer/director J.D. Dillard (SLEIGHT). It only has a couple characters, most of the time only two, and only one of those is human. Jenn (Kiersey Clemons, DOPE) wakes up face down on an island shore, life vest on, having survived some unspecified boat disaster. A friend or acquaintance of some kind, Brad (Benedict Samuel, the Mad Hatter on Gotham), has washed up too, but he’s impaled on some kind of shell, and he doesn’t last long.
So it’s a castaway movie. Jenn immediately proves to be very resourceful, smashing through a coconut with a sharp rock to get water. She finds her luggage, and manages to be well dressed in beach attire throughout the movie. She also finds luggage from someone else who’s been on the island, but maybe a long time ago. Long enough to have a Gameboy.
For a bit it seems like some puzzle-oriented video game like Myst, because she’s looking at objects and photos, piecing together a bit of a backstory for characters we never even see. There’s a journal, but it got wet enough that all the ink smeared away.
She finds a bunch of fish on shore. Big ones. Gathers them up. Then she sees a shark, dead with slash marks across it. Ominous. This was not one of her desert island picks, to have to worry about a mysterious predator out there. Is it too much to hope it’s just Shark Freddy haunting sharks in their dreams?
It happens at night. Something claws at the FOX & THE HOUND style hollow log that she sleeps in. Something digs up Brad’s grave and leaves a giant mess of sandy blood. I like watching a smart character go through a process without the crutch of dialogue to explain what they’re up to. So I enjoyed her procedure of digging a little pond, to corral little fish, to mash up in a bucket, to throw out as chum, to attract another shark, to spear it through the brain, to hang it from a tree, and hide under a palm, and watch the silhouette of a weird sharkman show up and snatch it. So that she knows he exists. I doubt I would’ve thought of that plan, much less pulled it off. But I’m not sure could build a hammock high up off the ground like she does either. She’s just good at stuff.
You wonder why it’s called SWEETHEART, and the answer is a good one but it comes up late in the movie so I’ll call it a SPOILER. After she’s managed to survive many nights, face the beast and even injure it, two more survivors show up on a life raft – her boyfriend Lucas (Emory Cohen, THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES, BROOKLYN) and a girl named Mia (Hanna Mangan-Lawrence, Spartacus: Vengeance). Jenn welcomes them with vintage bottles of Coke she found – the desert island version of getting a really old bottle of wine out of the cellar to share with company – and once they’re slightly rested she tells them they should get going soon.
Lucas and Mia are not on board with that idea at all, so she tells him all about the monster and what she’s been going through on the island. And he says, “Sweetheart…”
He doesn’t believe her. Acts like she’s lost it. Smiles condescendingly. I bet that shit never happened to Dutch after PREDATOR. “Honey, I know you’re stressed out from getting so muddy, but…”
There’s a little more later on to reveal that she had some sort of trouble earlier in life with people not believing her. I think we can guess what sort of thing that’s about. I always appreciate when people get the chance to work through something like that by killing a motherfucking monster. But also I respect how understated the theme is. That title is important because it signals how central that theme is to the story.
SWEETHEART was produced by Blumhouse, but unlike so many of their other movies (including many inferior ones) they released it straight to VOD after it played Fantastic Fest. I don’t know if it could’ve caught on in theaters or not, but I hope the people who would appreciate it are able to find out about it without advertising. Like anything this light and uncomplicated it’s not likely to knock you on your ass, but we need some solid little breezy things like this sometimes.
I want to compare it to CRAWL, not because it’s about a capable heroine stranded near a hungry amphibious monster, but because it’s in a similar category of simple, to-the-point horror. It skips over the boat accident. It doesn’t tell you where they were going or what happened (though the way Brad died might imply it was monster-related). It doesn’t give some dumb origin story for her talents – “my dad was an engineer, he always taught me to build things” or some shit. It doesn’t explain what exactly the monster is, where he came from, or specifically what the “black hole” is that he comes out of. It doesn’t project what Jenn is up to or have her unnaturally talk to herself to explain it – you just watch her. Lots of good visual storytelling, like how she doesn’t take Brad’s life jacket off for a long time and later when she looks at it laying on its own you know she’s remembering what happened to him. And later she does what she has to do and it’s over in 82 minutes. Flawless victory.
Director J.D. Dillard is a young guy. I read he was a receptionist for Bad Robot, then became an assistant to J.J. Abrams during THE FORCE AWAKENS, which explains how he ended up playing stormtrooper FN-126 in THE RISE OF SKYWALKER. I’ve also heard good things about Dillard’s first movie SLEIGHT, a Sundance hit about a street magician that got bought by Blumhouse. As a promising new director he’s signed on to a bunch of things that may or may not happen, and one of them is a remake of (the remake of?) THE FLY. It’s not listed on his IMDb, but it was reported a while back and he’s talked about it within the last few months as something he’s written and hopes to do.
Peter Sciretta from Slashfilm asked him about it a few years ago when he was in talks for it. It sounds like he was getting lots of hype so he went around to meet with everybody and all they wanted to hire people for was remakes. Sad. But I like that he mentions the RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES trilogy as his idea of how a remake should be approached. And he says, “I’ve started to realize my dream film experience is something with big scale that can also make me cry.”
SWEETHEART doesn’t have big scale and it didn’t make me cry, but I can see him getting there. I hope he does.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.