Once mostly dismissed as a sidebar for modest, low-budget schlock, Sundance’s Park City at Midnight section has become a higher-profile affair in recent years, playing host to ambitious breakout horror films and other genre hybrids such as The Babadook, Hereditary, and Mandy. J.D. Dillard’s Sweetheart combines the best of both worlds: As a Blumhouse release, it’s not afraid to go for the occasional jump scare, but it’s also an ingenious affair, a no-nonsense monster movie that uses its limitations effectively and tells its story cinematically.
For its first half, Sweetheart is largely wordless, following a single character, Jennifer Remming (Kiersey Clemons), who has washed ashore on a desert island following some sort of unspecified wreck. She finds one of her companions, but he’s mortally wounded and dies within minutes. Jennifer’s survival skills are limited, as she sets about trying to endure — looking for sustenance, tools, and a way off this island. With a protagonist who barely speaks for much of the film’s running time, key thoughts and plot points have to be conveyed largely visually, but her ordeal is completely absorbing all the same.
The need to leave this place soon becomes more urgent. Exploring the area, Jennifer comes across an old abandoned campground with a few rusty supplies, and what appears to be a dug-up grave. (Also found: a book of scary campfire stories, offering a charming bit of foreshadowing.) Loud noises in the middle of the night wake her up. She buries her friend, but his body goes missing in the morning. And what’s with that half-eaten shark that washed ashore?
This is the point at which you should stop reading if you don’t want to know anything further about what happens in Sweetheart.
One night, Jennifer sees a plane flying overhead and attempts to shoot a flare into the sky to get its attention. As the flare drifts down into the ocean, it ever-so-briefly illuminates some … thing, out in the water, making its way toward land.
As Jennifer runs and hides from whatever that thing is, director J.D. Dillard uses mostly darkness and sound to convey the terror of the situation. We barely ever see the creature: It’s a shadowy figure hovering in the background, or a bit of leg, or claw, always sheathed in darkness. One scene plays out entirely with our heroine hiding inside a hollow tree trunk, quaking with fear and trying to remain quiet as the beast thumps and thunders around her. Seriously, you could make much of this movie at home, with a bunch of blackout curtains — provided you had Dillard’s eye, a great sound crew, and an actress as talented as Clemons.
Sweetheart’s art lies not in blunt simplicity but in the savvy way it builds a sense of menace and then keeps us (literally) in the dark. Not knowing much about this monster, we’re not quite sure of what it can and can’t do, so we never feel safe. The film also effectively plays with the tension between its sun-drenched, paradiselike setting and the unspeakable horrors that plague it at night; with a bigger budget, I suppose it might have become Survivor: Cloverfield. Meanwhile, some evocative bits of imagery deepen our sense of unease. As Jennifer looks through the abandoned campground, she finds some old Polaroids taken by a family that has long since vanished. They seem like simple little snapshots — but she soon sees that there may be something more to them.
There are many points at which Sweetheart could have faltered, including a final act in which a couple of additional survivors show up, thus dispelling some of the picture’s elemental, wordless, one-woman-against-the-world mystique. But the film handles these scenes well, expanding Jennifer’s character and backstory without explaining too much, and hinting at more troubling, non-monster-related terrors without distracting from the central story. Even the obligatory thematic stuff about learning not to run from your demons and facing your greatest fears is handled with subtlety and care. And it’s all done in 82 diamond-sharp minutes.