Over the past decade, Blumhouse Productions has made a major name for themselves in the world of horror, as they might not necessarily be reinventing all aspects of the genre, but they find the right filmmaker for various projects to offer new perspectives on well-worn storylines. One of their more recent efforts, Sweetheart, serves as a strong example of this formula and the horrors which director J.D. Dillard depicts. The innocuous and ambiguous title of the film is a good representation of the story, as a number of different horror tropes unfold, with Dillard and star Kiersey Clemons managing to deliver the audience surprises any time the story begins to lose steam, making for an engaging and multi-faceted thriller.
Jenn (Clemons) inexplicably washes up on the shore of what some would view as a tropical paradise, only for the subsequent death of her friend moments later letting us know that this is the beginning of her worst nightmare. As if being all alone on an island, forced to explore the dense jungle for any supplies, wasn't a terrifying enough idea, Jenn discovers she is far from alone, with an unseen beast making its way to the island every time night falls.
Clemons spends the majority of the film completely alone, with her performance as Jenn not only being tolerable, but strong enough to keep our attention and invest in her survival. Claiming that a performance is stronger than "tolerable" might not sound like high praise, but Clemons had the cards stacked against her by having to occupy the spotlight of nearly every scene in the film. With Tom Hanks earning praise for carrying out a similar scenario on Castaway, it proves that it takes some real talent to win over the audience in a narrative that is destined to frustrate a viewer. As her journey unfolds, Jenn regularly blends a sense of terror, bewilderment, and resourcefulness, refusing to succumb to the elements nor the threat of the unseen creature, proving the actress has some serious genre chops.
Even if Clemons keeps the viewer engaged, there's only so much time we can spend watching anyone surviving on their own before we yearn for something more, which the film itself clearly knows, introducing new creepy elements when the traditional survival elements begin to lose steam. Similarly, as we see Jenn develop strategies to survive the mysterious attacks from the unseen creatures, as soon as that narrative begins to stagnate, the film introduces new wrinkles to explore other even more elements that are set up by the premise.
The creature itself is sporadically effective, at times being shown too much and at times being shown too little. The premise of a creature only attacking at night on an isolated island means there's no chance of getting a good look at the creature as there's no strong light source, with some audiences surely being frustrated at the denial of the beast in its full glory while others will likely be more afraid of their imaginations than the actual design. In other scenes, we're given complete looks at the beast, likely exciting some viewers while disappointing others. Crafting an all-new monster for any project is a difficult task, with Sweetheart's beast sure to earn some mixed reactions.
Despite the film's best efforts to keep audiences on their toes, the avenues explored each time the narrative shifts direction are all well-worn cliches that fail to offer audiences anything especially new. Whether it be the ways Jenn hopes to stave off starvation or her instincts on how to confront the beast or the paranoia and mistrust survivors begin to feel when they become stranded, the ways in which the story unfolds fails to circumvent or surpass our expectations. While the narrative manages to throw us for a loop when it deviates into a new direction, the actual content of those new directions fail to be as ambitious as the ways they are meant to blend together.
If survival thrillers or creature features are your thing, you're sure to find plenty to like with Sweetheart, as Clemons' performance will engage all audiences while the narrative delivers a number of thrills, yet we can't help but feel like we've seen all of these narrative developments unfold in stronger films before, making the experience just barely more entertaining than it had any right to be.
Rating: 3 out of 5
Sweetheart lands on Digital HD and On Demand on October 22nd.