Horror has always been political, regardless of what some genre fans might think, but that pairing is at its best when the horror remains the priority. Offer your commentary on the class divide, but don’t forget the thrills, chills, and latex (The People Under the Stairs, 1991; Society, 1989). Critique the American obsession with consumerism, but deliver with suspense, character, and playfully grotesque effects (Dawn of the Dead, 1978; The Stuff, 1985). Slam the system that values women and minorities less than white men, but do so with wit, terror, and beauty (The Witch, 2015; Us, 2017). It’s that last sandbox in which Run Sweetheart Run attempts to play, but the results are disappointing and shallow.
Cherie (Ella Balinska) is a single mother with an abusive ex, an adorable toddler daughter, and a questionable boss who thinks it’s okay to set his employee up with a wealthy client. She’s thrilled, of course, and only hopes that Ethan (Pilou Asbaek) is as nice as he is hot. Date night starts rough when a menstruating Cherie runs out of tampons, but it improves when Ethan appears to be a true gentleman. Psych! Mere minutes after Cherie steps inside his mansion for a nightcap she emerges bloodied and terrified. Survive until dawn, he tells her, and he’ll let her live, and with that she runs off through a curiously empty Los Angeles desperate to survive the night.
The basic premise, as it stands, is already a solidly reliable setup from which dozens of entertaining genre efforts have birthed, and while writer/director Shana Feste adds big elements that take it beyond simple thriller territory the film’s narrative is its biggest strength. An underdog protagonist with the odds against her and a ticking clock standing between her and survival? Viewers can’t help but jump aboard, and Balinska’s charismatic and empathetic performance makes it that much easier to do so.
Unfortunately for Cherie — and for the audience — Feste almost immediately loses focus, and instead of delivering a thrilling tale of adrenaline-fueled terror/fun with Run Sweetheart Run she wrecks it all trying so damn hard to say something “important.” Make no mistake, the film’s themes are sadly relevant, but they’re applied with all the craftsmanship of a single-layer paint job over a broken and rusty playground. Each unsubtle point it tries to make through repetitive visuals and literal dialogue is refuted by other choices making it difficult to take any of it seriously despite the clearly good intent.
Cherie’s journey through the night is hampered by a reality in which no one seems to give a damn about a black single mother. Her discovery that she’s not Ethan’s first victim amplifies that message with the realization that our society devalues non-whites in all areas including as victims of crimes. A pair of white women scoff at her request for help despite the torn dress and bruised face, and a policeman — the only cop in all of Los Angeles it turns out — treats Cherie as a suspect and refuses to believe her assault claims. There’s also the issue of women being valued purely for their sexuality and beauty, and the film reminds viewers of that every few minutes with billboards and other background marketing using nothing but sex to sell everything (but sex).
Again, important points, but even films as basic as The Purge (2013) and The Stepford Wives (1975) manage to hit the commentary hard while still delivering the narrative goods. Here Feste trades nuanced layering for loud repetition — an issue that also applies to the abundant attempts at jump scares — which serves only to water the themes down into mush. Worse, after making these points repeatedly the film walks Cherie through an Asian spa with a tracking shot featuring nude, dialogue-free female bathers. It seems tone deaf to chase your rallying cry about devalued and sexualized minority women with naked and silent Asians. And not for nothing, but doubling down by having your hero change into a gi before facing the evil white man feels like a wobbly move in a supposedly racially aware film. And then there’s all of Cherie’s black friends being gun-toting gang-bangers…
With so much of Feste’s attention directed towards fumbling its social commentary, she neglects her narrative and characters with predictably disastrous results. A turn towards the supernatural seems thrilling at first glance, but it quickly comes clear that it’s a decision made with very little thought. Rules and abilities change with the wind, logic is non-existent, and a key element involving the monster’s weakness is left unexplained and then quite literally dropped with no reason before being replaced with the most generic alternative available. It’s a jaw-droppingly incompetent move that marks our hero as fairly dense, and no attempts at celebratory fist-pumping can erase that.
Some of the film’s issues appear to be budget related including the police station with a single cop to a sparsely populated rave club, but while those are minor observations others are more directly disappointing. Most notably, the action occurs almost exclusively off screen from the opening attack to a later car crash and gun battle, and visual effects are kept to a minimum including one sequence that teases something glorious but refuses to actually show it to anyone but Cherie. (It’s worth noting that last year saw another Blumhouse release with a black woman at its center fighting both a monster and preconceived notions on a budget — it’s fantastic, and it even bears a similar title: Sweetheart.)
It’s not all bad with Run Sweetheart Run, but it’s bad enough. As mentioned, Balinska is an engaging talent, and Asbaek is having a good time being evil. The score by Rob (Maniac, 2012; Revenge, 2017) is also a highlight with a blend of uptempo and energized music accompanying the far less interesting onscreen visuals. There are a few fun beats here and there, but these positives are the clear minority in a film filled with mediocrity, and they’re ultimately undervalued. Huh, maybe it’s a meta-commentary?