★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
A fantastic heroine, an amphibious sea monster, and a tropical island. You should already be watching this movie.
Directed by J.D. Dillard
Smart decisions in a horror movie are a rare and beautiful thing. When nobody in the film says, “hey, let’s split up to cover more ground,” fans of the horror genre sit up and take notice, but when nearly every decision made and is rational and completely believable? That’s like finding the legendary, stained glass, magical unicorn at the end of the genre rainbow. That talks. And poops gold.
Sure, the name of the film makes Sweetheart sound like a rom-com or some kind of tween coming of age flick, but that’s actually part of its charm. The title is taken from an annoyingly condescending line aimed at our heroine in a decidedly undeserved tone. Using it as the title of the movie is like giving your biggest friend the nickname “Tiny”. It works.
One of the best things about Sweetheart is that it just… starts. There’s no intro. There’s nobody setting out a welcome mat. There’s just Jennifer “Jenn” Remming [Kiersey Clemons; Dope (2015)] washed up on the beach. Some people hate that kind of beginning. It’s like being dropped into the middle of the story, but if you’re a fan of experiencing things right alongside the main character it’s the perfect way to present the film.
Jenn comes to and crawls her way out of the water to discover she’s on a very small and very deserted island in the tropics. The victim of a shipwreck, her friends are either dead or missing in action so it’s up to her to survive long enough to get rescued.
Isolation is a big thing with Sweetheart. Jenn’s by herself for the majority of the film and, thankfully, the filmmakers don’t resort to some contrivance like talking to a volleyball named “Wilson” as a reason to add dialog. The average script is somewhere in the neighborhood of 120 pages long; the script for Sweetheart reportedly comes in at around 68 pages. That’s a lot of time spent not talking. Which means it needs to be filled with something else and Kiersey Clemons does a great job. Through a combination of facial expressions, body language, and musical cues the audience can tell exactly when she’s discovered something interesting or come up with a new idea.
The limited dialog in Sweetheart also means that other sounds are brought to the forefront. Waves lapping the shore of the deserted island, the crackle and pop of Jenn’s campfire, the snuffling and wonderfully aquatic-sounding whines of the giant, man-eating sea monster all work together to produce a soundscape that’s both beautiful and threatening.
As a Blumhouse project, the budget for this motion picture was kept to a minimum. However, the filmmakers did some amazing work in bringing their critter to life. Played by Andrew Crawford who was also the man behind the mask as the “Neomorph” in Alien: Covenant (2017), the creature in Sweetheart cuts an imposing figure; large and stompy on land, but graceful and smooth in the water. The effects crew outdid themselves in creating a primarily aquatic predator. While the creature does come up on land to gather food, it’s obviously more comfortable in the water.
As is standard practice in low-budget monster movies, shots of the creature are mostly backlit or low light setups. Partly to hide any possible flaws in the monster suit the team couldn’t afford to fix and partly to let the audience fill in the fine details with their own vivid imaginations. The result is a beastie that’s fun to watch and packs a punch. Not to mention giving us one of the best monster introduction scenes in recent memory.
Sweetheart is a gorgeous looking tale of one woman’s fight not just to survive, but also to redefine herself. This battle with the elements (and giant fishman) changes her self-perception for the better. Having no introduction or explanation, the audience only knows Jenn from the island. As the movie reveals more about how others see her, we find our perception of her to be at odds with the rest. It’s facets like this unexpected character study that keep Sweetheart fresh and interesting.
With its smart script and well-placed twists, it shifts from an engaging island survival flick to a harrowing creature feature without losing any of its believability. Sadly, Blumhouse and Universal Pictures decided that they wouldn’t be giving Sweetheart a theater release, but it’s available right now through Video On Demand as well as streaming services like Amazon Prime.
Set up the beach chair, stoke up the campfire, and settle in for some good ol’ fashioned monster mayhem.
Sweetheart has been rated PG-13.
Review by Robert Zilbauer.