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.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 16th, 2020 at 7:32 am and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

14 Responses to “Sweetheart”

  1. I’ve been waiting my whole life for a sharkman movie so I’m watching this no matter what, but I’d like to pitch my expectations accordingly so as to fend off disappointment. How much sharkman are we talking about here? Brief shadowy glimpses? Full-on man-in-suit closeups? CGI blurs of movement? I recognize the sharkman is not really the focus of the movie but seeing a sharkman is as important to me as that dude from CABIN IN THE WOODS seeing a merman so if that aspect is gonna be a letdown I’d like to know ahead of time.

  2. SLEIGHT is pretty good and features a great performance from Dulé Hill of WEST WING and PSYCH fame as nice gangster boss, who is only nice as long as you do what he wants. It takes a while to get going and suffers a bit from (SPOILER) This-is-just-the-beginning-of-his-story syndrome (SPOILER ENDING), but it was good enough to make me interested in Dillard’s further career.

    That said, I had no idea SWEETHEART exists, but it sounds like something that I would expect from the director of SLEIGHT.

  3. @Mr Majestyk: You get a pretty decent helping of both practical and CG sharkman. Give it a shot!

  4. Thanks, sweetootho. Like I said, I’m watching it no matter what. The lure of the sharkman is too strong. But if it’s one of those “less is more” things I’d prefer not to spend the whole movie waiting for a payoff that’s never going to arrive.

  5. Did you ever get to any of the episodes of The Flash with King Shark in them?

  6. It was trending toward average for me, but the end did a swandive into ‘waste of time’. I really couldn’t get past the part where, twenty so minutes from the end of the movie, there’s just this avalanche of character exposition, like they suddenly realized “oh shit, guys, we don’t have a theme!” It just made the movie feel scatterbrained, all of a sudden introducing this sorta love triangle and possible murder and all that, then having no idea what to do with them. Like, if you’re going to go to the trouble of introducing a huge jerkass, can’t you have a better comeuppance for him than being pulled into a hole?

    Also, I know a lot of movies do the thing where the monster abruptly stops attacking the heroine just when she’s helpless, but kills everyone else in seconds… it just seemed especially blatant here and I think it’s a lazy enough trope that by now, people should try a little harder to avert it.

  7. Dan: I don’t think so? I only watched the first season, which did not give me the impression that the show could ever be the proper venue for the kind of visceral sharkman action I have long dreamt of.

  8. Although you do get to see the monster, it is kept mostly out of sight.

  9. @Mr. Majestyk
    Well, if SWEETHEART won’t work for you, then you can always give this prestige sci fi channel production


    this comic book


    or this ’90s, toy line promoting, TMNT cash grab


    a shot.

  10. If you haven’t seen this film don’t look it up on imdb as most of the first pictures are close up pictures of the monster, which will probably make you not want to see the film.

  11. Mr M,

    You ought to track down just the King Shark episodes and give them a watch. He’s one of the more delightfully stupid things to ever happen on TV.

  12. Well, that failed. I’m sure you can google it yourself.

  13. This was some of the best “show, don’t tell” filmatism I have ever seen! And its pragmatism and quiet optimism was exactly what I needed after BLOOD FATHER. Kiersey Clemons was amazing-rarely have I seen an actor do so much with so little. Hopefully she has a long and fruitful career. So yeah, great direction, great cinematography, great lead performance. I’m really glad I remembered that this was a thing that was out there. But the presence of a Game Boy as an artifact of the past made me feeling fucking old, even if I never owned one. So, minus a half-star.

  14. Finally got around to this one, and I enjoyed it. I’m glad I’d forgotten that I had been looking forward to it because I thought it had a sharkman in it. While he kind of qualified, I think I’d have been disappointed if I’d been waiting around for a sharkman and then this guy showed up. He’s a perfectly adequate fishman but not much of a sharkman. Still, we saw a lot more of him than I was expecting. He even had a little personality there at the end. No beef with this fishman. He’s just not a sharkman.

    I was really with this movie until the new characters showed up and started monologuing all over the place. We were getting along just fine with the showing and not telling and then the screenwriter must have gotten afraid that we’d think he hadn’t passed 9th grade English so he had to whip his themes out in public and wag them right in our face. The boyfriend, I thought, was particularly bad, both in the way he was written and particularly in the performance. If this character were to work at all, he’d have to portray a subtly gaslighting kind of evil, but this clown acts like a mustache-twirling villain telling James Bond his master plan. The way he emphasizes the title word is particularly cringe. You know how actors who play a lot of bad guys always say that nobody knows that they’re evil so you have to play them as if they’re the good guy? Yeah, this dude did not get that memo. My theory is he was afraid we might think he didn’t realize this character was a sexist prick if he didn’t lean into it, and he ends up coming off as a broad satire of a misogynist instead of an otherwise decent-seeming guy whose inner toxicity has been exposed by traumatic events. This guy is more than happy to play the role as a one-dimensional boogeyman of woke talking points, and for a half-hour or so it nearly sinks what had, until then, been a subtle and engrossing survival procedural. Luckily, the movie recovered for the finale. Would watch SWEETHEART 2: FISHMAN IN THE CITY.

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