Sweetheart (2019)

“I’ve never seen it during the day.”

Conceptually speaking, Sweetheart is an intriguing and easy sell for curious audiences to buy into. The first predatory shot lifts the camera from underwater to find Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) washed ashore and beached on a small island. She’s alone until she identifies Brad (Benedict Samuel), a man now resembling a bloated and dead fish. We don’t know their relationship, how they got there, or who these people really even are. And that’s all part of the mystery, the silent intrigue. Maybe that’s why Sweetheart works so well during the fairly silent first act, and explains why it falls apart when the film begins to plainly tell us information instead of faintly hinting at it with a subtle show.

It’s clear from the onset that Sweetheart is meant to be interpreted as a metaphor. The penned writing in Jenn’s waterlogged journal has been bled and stripped away her past life up until this point, the faint pages illegible and begging to be rewritten and sculpted with a shipwrecked sensibility. This is a new chapter. Smartly though, the film doesn’t just allow her to escape her past demons. Instead, she’s quite literally forced to battle with the embodiment of all her fears and failures. This comes in the form of a nautical monster – clearly inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon – that we first get a glimpse of in a stunning M. Night Shyamalan like shot, only showing the figure’s unnerving outline as a red flare’s call for help falls down into the hopeless and all-encompassing blue void.

Jenn learns the creature’s tendencies and habits, reluctantly relents and eventually adapts to this new primordial existence, and her ability to hunt and gather sheds a little light on who she is as a strong, unintimidated woman. Sweetheart borders on being genuinely great and is wholly enticing during the first half of the film, mostly due to the typically fantastic performance delivered by Clemons. But with an abrupt character and tonal shift in the latter portion, the film eventually becomes weighed down and heavy-handed, ultimately succumbing to its own self-inflicted wounds, more or less shooting itself in the foot.

Sweetheart depends on those unexpected shifts to keep the viewer engaged, so I won’t spoil what they are, even if I think most viewers will likely be able to guess given such dire circumstances. But in the end, this harrowing survival tale doesn’t quite know how to blend the forces of fear with the nuance of coming to terms with oneself, which seems to be the entire point of the picture. Surprising and suspenseful for the first thirty minutes, Sweetheart eventually succumbs to the extra weight added onto this lean framing device for personal redemption, setting up a story that wants to swim away from demons and oddly telling it in a way that’s trying to paddle against the current. It goes nowhere fast, and is a whole lot more like the uneven Backcountry than it is the level-headed The Shallows.

“There’s no way for me to show you the things I can tell you.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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