Fantastic Fest Review: SWEETHEART Sells A Solid Survival Story

Who wins in a fight between Kiersey Clemons and a killer man-shark? The audience.

As a character-driven survival thriller, Sweetheart has a lot of good things going for it. J.D. Dillard’s inspired direction, the film’s efficient pacing and editing, and most of all, an engrossing central performance by Kiersey Clemons allow Sweetheart to succeed, despite having a barebones story that would stop other movies dead in their tracks. Writer-director Dillard has made a solid monster movie

Our protagonist is Kiersey Clemons’s Jenn, and the plot begins right as she washes up on the shore of an unnamed desert island. We don’t get any backstory for how she arrived there; we’re only meant to know that she’s stranded. Her friend washes up on the shore impaled by a chunk of coral, and after he promptly dies, we know that Jenn is not only stranded, but alone as well.

The film slides into a Robinson Crusoe story, carried by Clemons’ compelling performance as a frustrated yet determined survivalist. While Jenn is resourceful enough to gather food and start a fire, she’s woefully unprepared to cope with the island’s apex predator: a mysterious amphibian that’s big enough to tear an entire shark in half with its claws, and vicious enough to savage the corpse of Jenn’s friend even after Jenn had already buried him. So Jenn needs to find a way off the island before the creature comes for her, or else she’ll get taken into the sea to some unimaginable fate.

Like Predator and Alien before it, Sweetheart is deliberately sparing in its exposition. The film includes small details and imagery that nod to a potential mythology, but since Dillard keeps the focus squarely on Jenn, the monster only matters so much as it intensifies Jenn’s urgency to get off the island.

As the film’s only speaking cast member for a major chunk of the movie, Kiersey Clemons has to rely on nonverbal expressions to convey her intentions and motivations, and she really makes it work. There’s never a moment where Jenn doesn’t feel like a fleshed-out character, and all her decisions and movements feel natural and motivated without being spoon-fed to us. In one sequence, she needs to catch a shark to bait the monster for a trap, and it’s astonishing how well the movie conveys Jenn’s devising of the plan, its execution, and its complications. It’s done with the minimum amount of needed shots and completely without dialogue, yet it manages to be super tense and satisfying. That level of economy defines most of Sweetheart.

The film stumbles a bit in its second act, where the film introduces “boy who cried wolf” parallels in an attempt to support its thesis, but it isn’t very successful in dramatizing any of it. This is an area where Sweetheart’s devotion to economy and minimalism hurts it, and maybe it could have been even stronger if it was just a bit longer.

Despite its sagging middle section and underweight thematics, Sweetheart remains an effective thriller. You should watch it just for lead performance and the monster reveal alone.