Fantastic Fest 2019: ‘Sweetheart’ is Practical Perfection

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Sweetheart

Good creature features are a rarity, especially those who rely on using practical effects over CGI. In Blumhouse’s Sweetheart, written and directed by J.D. Dillard, we get a survival horror creature feature that gets your blood pumping with the same fear of Jaws. The most amazing part? The film centers entirely on Jenn, leaving Kiersey Clemons to brilliantly carry the film.

Sweetheart opens with Jenn washing ashore a small tropical island. Alone, she must learn how to survive, teaching herself how to catch fish and small sharks and ultimately how to survive the elements. But, it isn’t long before she realizes that she is not alone as she discovers the belongings and graves of previous people who showed up on the island. Soon, Jenn is less concerned with piecing together the lives of the people who came before her and instead focuses on her survival as a terrifying monster stalks her on the island.

Sweetheart

There are three things that make Sweetheart necessary viewing. The first is the way that that film shows Jenn surviving. Instead of having Jenn already know everything, we get to go on a journey of discovery with her as she learns what she is capable of. Not only that, the process isn’t pretty. Jenn fails, a lot. She hurts herself, she tries, and she continually keeps moving forward to survive. Sweetheart gives a template for every survival film to come after it, a way to showcase Jenn’s strength and to do so while exploring her vulnerability.

Second, the monster that is hunting her is all perfectly executed practical effects and at the center of the story. A giant monster from the sea, the creature design is epic in scale. The coloring of its skin and its abilities in the water and on land are one of the most exciting things I saw at Fantastic Fest 2019. The attention to detail from the effects artists, John Howard and Adam Howarth, and the choice to use practical throughout helps create an immersive experience for the viewer and ultimately makes Clemons’ action scenes all the more intense.

Truthfully, it’s easy for the creatures to get lost in monster films saddled with as much emotion as Sweetheart, but that never happens. While we receive hints to the skeletons of Jenn’s past, they remain breadcrumbs, allowing the creature and Jenn’s fight to survive the whole meal.

Sweetheart

Finally, Sweetheart is a film to watch because Clemons gives an intense, emotional, and exciting performance. Alone, the majority of the film is spent watching Clemons survive as Jenn, and in many scenes, there is nothing but the sounds of the island. Clemons’ performance is breathtaking, her ability to make you feel for her struggle deepens your connection with her in the film.

As a character, Jenn’s ingenuity and ability to adapt to whatever the island throws at her is not only well done for the purpose of the film but the choice to distill the story into two focuses, Jenn and the island works on a level that will ensure that Sweetheart is included on many of the top horror lists for the year. There is also a slowness to the film that allows Jenn’s story to breathe instead overwhelming the screen with monster shot after monster shot. In fact, the creature is hidden in shadows and shown in parts until the film’s third act. An expert choice that uses mystery to facilitate danger.

Sweetheart is one of the strongest monster movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a creature feature with a protagonist who grows from the start of the film to the end. When you add in the synth-wave score you end up with a film that knows what it is doing, it’s building terror through suspense and rewarding its audience with the big monster when the time is right. Sweetheart has a magic to it that only the Fiji landscape, monster design, and Clemons’ performance can create.

Sweetheart will be available now on Netflix.

Sweetheart
  • 9/10
    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

Sweetheart is one of the strongest monster movies I’ve ever seen. It’s a creature feature with a protagonist who grows from the start of the film to the end. When you add in the synth-wave score you end up with a film that knows what it is doing, it’s building terror through suspense and rewarding its audience with the big monster when the time is right.