Sundance 2019 – Sweetheart

Sometimes, if the filmmaker is at the screening, you just have to shake their hand and thank them. That was the case after I watched Sweetheart, the latest from J.D. Dillard, a filmmaker I am buying stock in immediately. I told him how much I loved what I just watched, and thanked him kindly. Was it a film that made me rethink the human condition? The kind that would sweep awards shows? No. But it was a work of passion, made with ambition and craftiness, the kind that makes you want to join in on the fun and make films. And it was just also a total blast to watch. It signified for me, a true exciting filmmaker with both a love and expertise for their craft. Bravo, Mr. Dillard.

After washing ashore on a tropical island after a shipwreck, Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) quickly realizes she’s not alone as a dangerous creature comes to shore every night to hunt its prey.

There’s just a natural relatability and resilience to Kiersey Clemons that goes a long way in this film. There’s an immediacy she injects into Sweetheart. You’re just always with her and rooting for her, she just keeps you invested on a human level even as this batshit monster movie happens around her. She also sticks her character arc with barely a line of dialogue. I applaud that. This film wouldn’t work for a second without her.

The design and application of the creature is sublime. Dillard knows exactly when to show you it and when not to show you it. The first look you get at it is a beautiful moment, the whole audience lost it. You spend much of the movie not getting a clear look at it, heightening your fear and wonderment of it, and when he does finally let you see it all, it’s so strange and beguiling you still have trouble registering exactly what you’re looking at. It’s just terrific. I also commend Dillard for using a tremendous amount of practical effects with the creature, keeping the danger and threat of it physical and tactile. When he does use digital effects, there’s really no drop-off in the quality and immediacy of the creature.

Cinematographer Stefan Duscio shot one of my favorite films of last year, Upgrade, and brings a nimble touch to Sweetheart’s look. Even though this whole movie is one location and focused on one character, you never feel like they’re just recycling shots, they keep it fresh and exciting. Charles Scott IV crafts a nifty, fun synth score.

I haven’t seen Dillard’s first film Sleight, but I am definitely keen on watching it soon now. He takes what could have been one of the terrible syfy channel movies and ends up making one of the most original and creative works I’ll see this year, and it also ends up becoming a neat little metaphor for self-worth and independence. It’s just marvelous. I can’t believe that a large studio like Universal Pictures is going to be putting this out, it’s a minor miracle this film exists. I hope when it is released, we give it the love that it deserves. It’s not everyday you see an original creature feature made in part with a major studio. We need to support that and help it succeed so more works of art like it can exist. J.D. Dillard is not a filmmaker to be taken for granted, and Sweetheart is not a film to be taken for granted either. This film will stick with me throughout the year, it’s one I can’t wait to share with others.

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