'Sweetheart': Film Review | Sundance 2019

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A tight, scary survival story.

'Sleight' director JD Dillard returns to Sundance with an island-set creature feature starring Kiersey Clemons.

Trapped on a tiny island in Fiji, with plenty of fish to eat and occasional storms that bring drinking water — oh, the horror. Yeah, but did I tell you about the monster that lives in a creepy hole underwater just off the shore? Kiersey Clemons keeps her act together in JD Dillard's  Sweetheart, succumbing to none of the helplessness that generally afflicts women in fright flicks or city folk in the great outdoors. A cracking little one-hander (mostly) that rations glimpses of its well-designed beastie expertly, the picture will please genre fans who don't mind long stretches with no dialogue.

After a storm destroys the ship she and a few friends were vacationing on, Clemons' Jennifer awakens in a life jacket on a sandy beach. A friend is not far away, but he's got a shaft of coral in his gut and doesn't live long. As she's getting the lay of the land and scrounging things to keep herself alive, Jen realizes she's got to bury the guy. She finds a tarp to sleep under, and doesn't seem to notice the three claw-like rips down the middle of it. Then she awakens to find her friend's body missing, with just a streak of blood and a hole in the ground where she left him.

Jen's survival strategies adapt to the idea that somebody else is on this tiny island, though the only evidence she sees of that is some seemingly quite old camping supplies and a few stones that may be grave markers. Then, in a reveal shot that should enter some monster-movie hall of fame, she sees what she's up against.

What had been a pared-down millennial Cast Away turns into a cat and mouse game in which the mouse is resourceful and not yet scared senseless. Jen finds good hiding places, gets a feel for the beast's schedule (he never comes ashore in the day — the better for Dillard to keep him in the shadows), and seems to be brainstorming a possible scheme to trap the thing. Then a couple of her shipmates arrive.

Mia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) and Lucas (Emory Cohen), Jen's boyfriend-with-an-asterisk, are exhausted from days on a raft, and are too happy about being on solid land to buy this story about a monster who comes at night. It turns out Mia has just enough of a reputation for unreliability that Sweetheart threatens to become a survivors-vs.-each other tale with occasional breaks for monster action. (Later, Jen will talk of her difficulties making herself believed — "The truth doesn't always come with a receipt" — sounding as if she speaks for survivors of more commonplace assaults in the real world.)

But Dillard isn't eager to clutter up this thriller, and interpersonal tensions resolve themselves, after a fashion, pretty quickly. The pace quickens steadily from the time the newcomers arrive, leading to a full-on battle between humans and what turns out a be a 10-foot, giant-clawed humanoid that has an ingenious and terrifying way of chasing its prey down a beach. Whether she survives the duel or perishes, Jen is dead-set on making this tale believable to anybody who should find her campsite in the future.

Production companies: BH, Engineer
Cast: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Andrew Crawford
Director: JD Dillard
Screenwriters: JD Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner
Producers: Jason Blum, JD Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner, Bill Karesh
Executive producers:
Director of photography: Stefan Duscio
Production designer: Robbie Porter
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Editor: Gina Hirsch
Composer: Charles Scott IV
Casting director: Terri Taylor
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)

82 minutes