Watching survival-horror film Sweetheart, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year, I couldn’t help but feel reminded of the 2000 Robert Zemeckis film Cast Away starringTom Hanks. Both are about being stranded on a deserted island, mostly alone (volleyballs don’t count, sadly). While Sweetheart tries hard not to copy the film that’s become synonymous with this particular predicament, it also shares enough in common with Cast Away that it should have taken more pages out of its book.
In Sweetheart, Kiersey Clemons plays Jenn, a young woman who washes ashore on a small tropical island. The other person she’s with dies almost immediately, leaving her all alone. Well, not entirely alone; Jenn soon discovers there’s a hideous bipedal sea creature that stalks the island at night looking for food. Her only hope of getting off the island quickly takes a backseat to her fear of surviving even just a few days with this hungry monster close by.
Like any island survival story, this movie hits certain obligatory marks, but also abandons other traits of the sub-genre. The story focuses so much on Jenn surviving the beast that it ignores some logical aspects of being stranded. We watch our protagonist as she learns how to fend for herself for meals, but not much beyond that. She finds a box of matches, so making fire is easy. And her short-lived attempt at building a raft is weak and underwhelming.
Director and co-writer J.D. Dillard seems to want his film to be succinct so badly that he ends up rushing the process and leaving out certain aspects the audience is curious about. Pretty much the entire movie takes place either on the shore of the island or within the ocean itself. When Jenn explores, she explores the perimeter. We never really see any of the lush scenery’s interior of the picturesque setting. It’s commendable to see a filmmaker who wants to make a lean story, but isn’t the point of world building to make the audience want to stay in that world for as long as possible? At 82 minutes, Sweetheart is gone almost as quickly as it arrives.
The musical score, composed by Charles Scott IV, brilliantly utilizes the story’s silence most of the time, punching in only when it absolutely needs to and helping to build up this tone that balances both hope with despair, putting the audience in Jenn’s shoes (or bare feet) as she tries to figure out which to cling to more.
Sweetheart pushes forward most of the time, but takes a step back when (no spoilers) introducing new characters. Dillard does a great job directing Clemons when she’s alone, but not when characters need to interact with one another. We just want to go back to our lead by herself, but the director insists on painting a picture for us of who Jenn is as a person. However, when we’re given more of her backstory, we suddenly realize we didn’t ever need it. Sometimes a character only needs to be whatever he or she is within the confines of the story. And prior to any of these interactions, we already know Jenn as we go along on this journey with her.
Credit to Clemons who does everything she’s asked to do and more. She’s so believable when she’s afraid or hopeless that we’re not taken out of the movie itself. It’s only in the mediocre dialogue she’s given that we even sort of wonder if it’s her or the script itself. I’m leaning towards the latter.
Dillard does an excellent job building suspense and forcing us to pay attention for almost the entire movie. During the night time scenes, he utilizes shadows and what little natural light that occurs in the elements to enhance our fear of this creature. When Jenn is alone on the island, we don’t want to look away. Despite teasing us with details that never become realized, Dillard creates a world we’d like to stay in a little bit longer. We’re excited about what’s to come, growing hopeful that Sweetheart meets the expectations he’s established. And ultimately, it really does.