There are two great images in J.D. Dillard’s “Sweetheart,” a lean creature feature that could have used just a little extra meat on its bones. The first — a moment widely hailed since the film’s Sundance debut this past January — hinges on the initial reveal of the monster, a humanoid fishman who spends most of its time lurking in the darkness, and looks like one of Guillermo del Toro’s roughest drafts whenever it swims into the light. The second has to do with a deliciously unnatural black hole that’s carved into the bottom of the ocean; a sunken portal that drills straight into your deepest fears.
Beyond that, “Sweetheart” boasts precious little in the way of visual imagination. But what this potent micro-dose of a movie lacks in showmanship, it makes up for in purity and resourcefulness and a rugged performance from Kiersey Clemons that might feel revelatory if the “Hearts Beat Loud” actress weren’t always this commanding. Dillard trusts in his star to hold our attention, and his terse script — co-written with Alexs’ Hyner and Theurer — seldom does anything to dilute the elemental primacy of its premise.
Equal parts “Cast Away” and “Alien,” “Sweetheart” is a horror fable about a girl who washes up on a deserted Fijian island, only to discover that a carnivorous amphibian creature of some kind comes up to the surface whenever the sun goes down. It doesn’t really get any more complicated than that, as even the eventual morsels of backstory only reinforce the irrelevance of additional information. When someone is stranded in the middle of nowhere and locked in a nightly battle for survival against a bipedal leviathan, it doesn’t really matter who they were yesterday.
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Her name is Jenn — that much we can glean from the stuff in her backpack — and she was on a boat of some kind with a few white boys who didn’t survive whatever cruel fate befell them. A guy named Brad is washed up on the sand, a killer hunk of coral sticking out of his chest; he lives just long enough to ask Jenn “Did you see it?” She’s too shocked to process what “it” there possibly could have been to see. Jenn finds another person she recognizes a bit further along the sand, and his head has been peeled off like the shell of a coconut. There will be other, even more ominous indications of trouble (e.g. a dead shark that’s streaked with giant claw marks), but Jenn is too busy thinking about food, shelter, and rescue to worry about that; there are plenty of things for her to fear without adding a hungry demon to the mix.
We don’t know where Jenn is from, or what she was like before she got here, but it’s clear that she isn’t especially well-prepared to live in the wild. She’s not an idiot by any stretch of the imagination, but she’s also not MacGyver; Jenn finds a waterlogged bag containing a Game Boy and a bottle of prescription meds — proof that she’s not the first person to wind up in this weird tropical hell — but this isn’t the kind of movie that ends with her rewiring a “Tetris” cartridge into a transistor radio, or poisoning the monster with a bottle of expired Xanax.
On the contrary, “Sweetheart” makes a point of stressing Jenn’s need for self-sufficiency. She isn’t going to get out of this by waiting for some kind of deus ex machina, and the film is principally concerned with the character’s inward focus. Eschewing dopey scenes of Jenn narrating her thought process for our benefit, Dillard relies instead on long stretches without a word being spoken, as his semi-panicked heroine tries to stave off feelings of helplessness. Jenn’s instincts aren’t always brilliant — at one point, she tries to sail away from the island inside an empty suitcase — but Clemons grounds every moment in such genuine desperation that you never feel compelled to judge her character the way you might the victims of a slasher movie. She’s doing her best, and that’s good enough. Judging by the film’s vaguely condescending title and the context that “Sweetheart” later provides for it, Jenn’s best might be even better than anyone thought, or than she was conditioned to expect from herself.
Dillard, whose “Sleight” wasn’t the most auspicious debut, also taps into his raw potential by going back to basics. “Sweetheart” is at its best and most intense during the earlier scenes where Jenn is still just trying to comprehend her situation, and Dillard makes a tasty snack out of the chaos. One especially gripping sequence in which Jenn hides from the monster inside a hollowed out tree trunk builds a visceral and immersive bit of cinematic terror from nothing but Clemons’ face, the dark void around her, and the nightmarish cacophony of noises that are coming from just inches away (the monster is more fun to listen to than he is to look at, as it taunts its prey with a guttural cry that makes it sound like it’s laughing at Jenn).
“Sweetheart” grows slack once Jenn and her monster fall into a routine, as Dillard fails to arrange the day-to-day material with the same care or sense of purpose that he brings to the setpieces, but the director has some devious surprises up his sleeve. The most satisfying of them all, however, has nothing to do with the monster, or the decreasingly enjoyable ways in which Jenn tries to kill and/or escape it. No, the most unexpected thing about Dillard’s film is that it never betrays its convictions, or gets any bigger than it needs to. “Sweetheart” might be too flimsy to support whatever metaphors people want to project onto it, but it doesn’t need you to complete the picture. This is a story about a young woman who wakes up on a deserted, monster-infested island and has to find the inner strength required to survive. She may not have thought herself capable of putting up a fight, but most people never learn what they’re capable of doing. All you really have to know is that, one way or the other, Jenn won’t be anyone’s sweetheart after this.
Universal will release “Sweetheart” on VOD platforms on Tuesday, October 22.