[Fantastic Fest] SWEETHEART Review: A Lean, Character-Driven Creature Feature

By: Paul Farrell

Sweetheart

The water is clear and blue in the bright sunlight, the sandy floor unobscured. There’s something serene about the crystal clear sea, something calming about the lapping waves as they make their way toward the sandy shore. In the wake of the beaming sun, the beauty of the ocean’s vastness and what it holds just beneath the surface is utterly breathtaking, offering a staggering sense of unfathomable possibility — one that can feel as impressive in the light as it does imposing in the dark.

That’s when a girl washes ashore.

Sweetheart, co-written and directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight), is a lean and introspective descent into survivalist horror. The movie follows Jenn (Kiersey Clemons), who has been marooned on an island with nothing but her wits, life jacket, and a severely injured shipmate to keep herself alive. Aside from navigating the elements, she also must contend with something else…something hungry that only comes at night. Tense from the very first frame, every move, decision, and desperate act to survive serves to construct a taut sense of dread which carries through the entirety of the film’s runtime.

Kiersey Clemons’ Jenn is fierce and capable, a character whose backstory comes less from exposition and more from the actress’ incredibly nuanced performance. She spends the bulk of the film alone, and through her isolation the truth behind her unassailable spirit becomes more than apparent.

J.D. Dillard navigates the visual language of the film with style and flair, beautifully juxtaposing the golden sands of the day with the pitch blackness of the ocean at night. Much of the mounting intensity comes from Stefan Duscio’s gorgeous cinematography and the way the image makes the audience feel like they too are on this remote island alongside Jenn.

The film leverages its mysterious threat with a surprising degree of reservation and care. The creature-features of old often leaned on set-piece moments as opposed to its protagonists’ characterizations, but Sweetheart deviates from the norm. By focusing on Jenn and her past, which is generally unknown to the viewer, what she fears becomes far more than something large, hungry, and monstrous — although it is certainly all of those things too.

Jenn’s journey is one ripe with self-discovery, a fight which will offer her the chance to either run and hide or seize agency and stand up to what has kept her complacent. Will she be as the limp body swept up against the ocean’s shores under the noonday sun? Or will she embrace her ingenuity and strike back, emerging from the water like a hungry thing at night, unafraid and unwilling to back to down?

Sometimes everything must be questioned, challenged, and broken if survival is at stake, whether you’re a sweetheart…or not.

Sweetheart is lean and fierce, a carefully crafted reintroduction to the power of the monster movie and the subgenre’s unique ability to get under the skin and find what lies just below the surface. Employing impressive practical effects, beautiful photography, and one of the best genre performances of the year from Kiersey Clemons, this is one that will resonate long after the final credits roll.

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