Review by Sean Boelman
Sweetheart, co-written and directed by J.D. Dillard (Sleight), is an old-school creature feature delivering plenty of scares in time for spooky season. Although there isn’t particularly much substance to the film, it is nonetheless a lean and mostly successful chiller kept afloat by a commanding lead performance by Kiersey Clemons.
The movie follows a young woman who, having washed up on an island alone, must survive against the elements and a malevolent force that resurfaces every night to hunt her. While this is an admittedly simple (and classic) set-up, Dillard and his co-writers manage to throw in enough twists and turns for the story to remain mostly unpredictable.
Additionally, thanks to the largely traditional approach that Dillard takes to building suspense, the film works much better than most other recent attempts to recapture the magic of the genre. For much of the movie, viewers will be left on the edge of their seats as they try to figure out the mystery as it unfolds. When the answer is finally revealed, things do become substantially less intriguing, but by that point, the story
Perhaps the only significant disappointment with this film is that it is unable to build an interesting mythology around the evil that haunts the protagonist. The first half of the movie teases something big and significant, so when the antagonist is revealed to be underwhelmingly straightforward, one can’t help but feel disappointed.
That said, thanks to the script’s good characterization, the film manages to stay thoroughly compelling. Jenn is a very sympathetic protagonist because of her strong will to live in such a dire situation. Granted, this connection is based on the most basic of human emotions — the instinct to survive — yet this is a shockingly effective tool when used properly in horror.
Lead actress Kiersey Clemons also deserves a great deal of credit for the movie’s success. Although there are a few people in the supporting cast (including a short but memorable turn from Emory Cohen), their screen time is limited and much of the film falls on Clemons’s shoulders alone. Her ability to carry the movie by herself, and to infuse so much emotion into the arc, is extremely impressive.
Dillard does a very good job of creating suspense in the character arc and timing of the scares, but he does not take to his advantage an obvious resource: the confined setting in which the film occurs. The cinematography and production design, however good they look, don’t seem to do enough to create a sense of claustrophobia that could have turned those scares into a feeling of pure dread.
Uncomplicated but enjoyable, J.D. Dillard’s sophomore feature Sweetheart is able to bring it home because of its dedication to the old-school methods of horror. Despite its flaws, this is a crowd-pleasing flick sure to satisfy genre fans.
Sweetheart is now available on VOD.