Horror Bingo 2022: Sweetheart

Being shipwrecked on a deserted island is hard enough.  Being shipwrecked on a deserted island with an amphibious sea monster?

I mean, come on. That’s just rude.

Year: 2019
Director: J.D. Dillard
First Watch or Rewatch: First Watch
Streaming Service: Netflix
Spoilers: Yeah, I couldn’t seem to avoid them
Grade: Vanilla

This is an fun watch, though I definitely like the first half of the movie more than the second. Kiersey Clemons gives a strong performance throughout, carrying the whole film on her back—and almost entirely without dialogue, too. The movie has some excellent moments of horror: sleeping in the hammock, hiding in the hollowed out tree trunk, pulling Zack’s torso out of the water, finding that Brad’s grave has been, ah, disturbed. I also like that we’re pretty sure what happened to poor Zack, even though no one ever explicitly says it, and the last battle is cool, too, especially since Jenn digs up some old corpses to fashion weapons from their bones, like a boss.

However, for me, the film does falter a bit when Lucas and Mia drift in. In theory, it should work: we’re at the halfway point of the film, the body count has stagnated, Kiersey Clemons hasn’t had anybody else to play off almost all movie, and we can only learn so much about her character when she’s the only person on screen. In execution, though, I think it falls short, and for a couple of different reason. One is that I just don’t buy a lot of Lucas’s lines, not the dialogue itself but the line deliveries. The actor is successfully giving me yuppie scum, but otherwise . . . IDK, the readings feel like readings to me, and I think these scenes suffer for it.

My other problem here is that introducing overarching themes and character arcs halfway through the movie is a tricky business, and I’m just not sure the balance is right. The themes, themselves, aren’t the problem. We discover that Jenn is considered unreliable, a liar, totally incapable of supporting herself, etc, and while Sweetheart doesn’t technically tell us if that’s true or not, I’m inclined to dismiss such assertions, considering Lucas and Mia A) totally killed Zack and B) are condescending little shits. Truthfully, though, the film could work either way. If Jenn really has been selfishly taking from people her whole life, then she’s thrown into a horror story where she can only depend on herself to survive. If, OTOH, Jenn (a woman and specifically a Black woman) has been regularly and unfairly dismissed as needy and hysterical, then this is a story where she’s finally given validation by killing the monster that nobody but her ever believed existed. And I do like that interpretation.

Thing is, until that 45 minute mark, Jenn has absolutely no backstory except that she washed up on the island after some kind of boating accident. We don’t get flashbacks, we don’t get dream sequences, and she never gives big monologues, so we know very little about her—and that’s totally okay; the film is working just fine like that! But it also means that Sweetheart hasn’t done any prep work to set up Jenn’s whole “you want proof, I’ll give you proof” character arc, so when Lucas and Mia finally roll up in their Bloody Raft of Doom, it feels like they came solely to drop the Moral of the Story on our heads before quickly dying. Mind you, I don’t mind that they die; they seem like very annoying people. But this whole section feels rushed and abrupt and—unfortunately—kind of artificial, which has the consequence of making Jenn’s whole emotional journey feel rushed, abrupt, and kind of artificial. Again, I like the arc; I just wish it began much earlier in the film.

Despite this, I had a totally decent time watching Sweetheart, even if I desperately wanted Jenn to spend at least one night further inland, like, if I knew a carnivorous monster came from the sea, I just . . . wouldn’t make camp anywhere near the shore. But it’s an easy, quick watch with a solid lead performance and some nicely tense moments, especially if you enjoy monster movies and/or survival horror.

Next Up: Poltergeist

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