Sunday, October 25, 2020

Doing the Islands

Sweetheart (2019)

Sweetheart (2019, directed by J. D. Dillard) is a model contemporary low budget genre film. It's efficient, it provides all the genre thrills a horror movie requires, and it even makes a stab at psychological depth, all inside a compact eighty two minute running time. Its first act is laconic. There's barely any dialogue. Its storytelling is conveyed entirely through the actions of its heroine, who must carry the weight of the narrative for the duration of the film. Depending on the actor, this kind of gamble can fail spectacularly. The filmmakers have chosen wisely in Kiersey Clemons who is more than up to the challenge, but anyone who has seen her in other films knows that already.

The story finds Jenn, our heroine, waking up on a beach where she's washed ashore after some unspecified disaster at sea. She's on an unpopulated island. She's not alone at the outset. One of her shipmates, Brad, has also washed ashore, but he has a piece of coral sticking in his side and he's bleeding to death. He asks her, cryptically, "Did you see it?" Jenn tends to his wound and tries to find him some water, eventually settling on a coconut, but she's too late. He dies while she's trying to get the coconut open. She buries him and explores the island, searching for anything that might help her. She finds an old campsite and several graves, and some odds and ends left behind by whoever preceded her on the island. The next morning, she discovers that Brad's grave has been dug up, and a trail of blood and viscera leads back to the sea. There's something out there off shore, something that comes at night. When she spots a suitcase and a pot floating in the water, Jenn swims out to grab them. She dives underwater to have a look and spots a great hole in the floor of the ocean. She swims back to see what she can make of the suitcase. She uses the pot to make chum from some of the fish she's been catching and attracts a small shark that she hangs up as bait. It works. Whatever is out there comes ashore that night and takes it. Subsequent nights are a cat and mouse game as Jenn tries to stay alive long enough for dawn to drive the creature away. Things become more complicated once she spies a life raft offshore. The raft hosts Mia and Lucas, who were on the boat with her. Lucas is her boyfriend, but he's harboring some resentment. Neither Mia or Lucas believe Jenn about her monster, much to their sorrow...

At a basic level, this is a survival horror movie. The first act of the film follows Jenn as she works out how she is going to eat or take shelter, or drink fresh water. Watching her figure things out is pleasurable, because she keeps her head and doesn't do anything egregiously stupid. Her competence is what gets the viewer on her side even without the filmmakers providing any dialogue as a means of getting to know her. The film is clever about ratcheting up the challenges, too. It doesn't throw her into the real crucible immediately. It lets her--and by extension the audience--find their footing before attempting to test her to destruction with its monster. It's a patient film. Mostly.

Sweetheart (2019)

The film sags a bit at the midpoint once Lucas and Mia show up. Lucas is a gaslighting abuser who resents Jenn for having a bad time on their vacation and the movie suggests that he's getting with Mia on the side in such subtle ways that it's almost subtext. Lucas's persistent, smarmy use of the pet name "Sweetheart" makes him one of the most punchable characters in recent film, and his refusal to even consider that Jenn knows what she's talking about is galling for an audience that's been watching her be the smartest person on the island since the get go. The film could revel in Lucas's death--he's the kind of character that inevitably winds up as monster chum, but the film backs away from demonizing him in the end. The downside of adding Lucas and Mia to the mix is that it's nakedly an attempt to make Jenn's battle with her monsters metaphorical as well as physical. She's depressed, okay? I don't know that the movie needs this, but it does needs the extra plot to make it to feature length and at least this is mere infuriating instead of boring. It's definitely not boring. If they want to make the monster an avatar for her depression or abuse, that's fine I guess.

Sweetheart (2019)

The movie's on-screen monster (as opposed to its metaphorical one) is an echo of Lovecraft's Deep Ones, though instead of modeling its appearance on angler fish or groupers or other terrifying monsters of the deep as is customary, it's gone with a shark's face. Some of the CGI used to bring it to life when it's doing more superhuman things is a bit dodgy, but the practical effects are pretty good. And the film takes its shark-ness to heart when it copies one of Jaws's best techniques: after setting up the idea that the creature only comes at night, it deploys it during the daylight as Jenn and Lucas try to flee the island on the life raft. Otherwise, the film follows the classic technique of the gradual reveal, knowing that the audience can fill in the details with their mind's eye more effectively than they can on a budget. This film's monster isn't bad, though, and it's certainly not the kind of laughable creature from the 1950s or 60s. Even on a budget, the state of the art is formidable these days.

Sweetheart ends on a striking note of ambiguity. It doesn't follow Jenn off the island, but it almost doesn't have to. We know that Jenn is going to survive because we've just watched her walk through the fire and come out on the other side still standing. A lot of this is down to the performance given by Kiersey Clemons, who holds the camera's gaze without flinching. It's a role that demands an uncommon physicality--not just the action scenes--and she throws herself into the part. I won't call this a starmaking performance because she's already done that. It's an iconoclastic part, though, because women of color are almost never the final girl or the sole survivor in a horror movie, though actors who are obviously movie stars sometimes are.

In any case, this is light years better than Blumhouse's other island horror movie this year. I like it a lot.

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