Survival thriller meets creature feature in the bare-bones “Sweetheart,” director J.D. Dillard‘s follow-up to 2016’s mind-bending “Sleight.” This is a female-driven genre film with an unlikely hero, and it feels like a hybrid of “Cloverfield” and “Castaway.”
It’s a beautiful day when Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washes ashore after a shipwreck with her dying friend on a desolate island. He doesn’t make it, and she finds herself stranded and alone. Desperately searching for shelter, a little luck is on her side when she finds an abandoned campsite and a few supplies. After a rest, Jenn wakes up and makes a couple of gruesome discoveries. It’s only the next night that she realizes that darkness is when the creature comes — and he’s hungry.
The deep sea creature plays a supporting role to Jenn, a strong and resourceful young woman who takes matters into her own hands to battle the elements and eventually devises a plan to fight her foe. It’s exciting to see a female of color carry this project, and she does a smashing job. It’s no small feat considering there’s almost zero dialogue for the majority of the film.
The first clear visual introduction to the monster is clever and scary, but keeping the monster a secret, shadowy figure makes it even scarier. Hearing nothing but growling and clicking noises gives the type of hold-on-to-your-seat menacing feeling that all horror films strive for. The film is suspenseful (with a few cheap jump scares thrown in for good measure).
Dillard sets challenging limitations for himself and his actors, crafting a scary story that never makes its way off a deserted island. It looks like paradise on the surface, and Dillard is exceptional at conveying his story cinematically. The audience sees what Jenn sees, from another dead friend who washes ashore days later to the first half-eaten shark she finds on the sand. When Jenn digs her own foxhole to observe the monster at night, we’re right there with her with our own disbelieving eyes. I felt an instant relationship with the character, which is a huge accomplishment in a film like this. It’s also something that’s necessary when one leading lady is carrying the film on her shoulders.
The pacing and suspense are brisk, but the story stalls when secondary characters are introduced. At least they did serve one purpose: after it’s revealed that Jenn has had trouble telling the truth in the past, I started to wonder if the monster was simply a figment of Jenn’s imagination instead of an alien or demon from the depths of hell.
This is a small scale story with a short run time (it doesn’t even hit the 90 minute mark), and the film has very little clutter. The ending may be predictable and the monster corny looking, but “Sweetheart” manages enough thrills to keep things interesting.