‘Sweetheart’ Review: A Peter Benchley Pulp Adventure for the #MeToo Movement [Sundance]

The ocean deposits a young woman (Kiersey Clemons) upon the shores of an island. She’s unconscious, stomach down on the beach with the water lapping back and forth over her face. A bright red life-jacket carried her to this spot and saved her from the agonizing, choking death of drowning. She awakens to the discovery of her friend bleeding to death next to her. The ocean dropped him here too but jabbed a chunk of coral in his stomach as a toll for their passage. She jumps into go-mode, pulling her friend to the point where jungle meets sand. She yanks the coral from his body, stuffs the wound with a makeshift bandage, and tears around the island looking for fresh water. Coconut milk will have to do; the woman smashes her way to its liquid, but by the time she returns the friend is a corpse. She’s alone now. Until she’s not.

Two years ago, writer/director J.D. Dillard revealed himself as a filmmaker eager to twist genre conventions with Sleight. Using a budget that one could probably find in the cracks of any Marvel Studios couch, Dillard mashed comic book tropes into a coming-of-age crime drama, and elevated both categories into a delightfully unique experience. Superhero stories could do more than deliver on spandex and punching.

With Sweetheart, Dillard returns to play in familiar cinematic hunting grounds and add a layer of thought atop audience expectations. He trades super-heroics for goofball Peter Benchley novels, oceanic terrors that flutter against biology but are more concerned with pulp thrills than the science that fuels them. We’re not talking Jaws here as Sweetheart wades into waters occupied by the trashier treats of Beast and White Shark.

From the moment humans dared to sail across our infinite seas, stories rose to address the nightmares of such bravado. The castaway story is as classic as they come. From Robinson Crusoe to Gilligan’s Island, this particular archetype offers an opportunity for the hero to battle their complacency and prove their existence. Are you worthy of your life? Fight for it.

Clemons is asked to provide the usual expressions of island survival. She scrounges, investigates, and encounters several solutions to keep herself breathing while she awaits rescue from a random low-flying plane or passing barge. She’s watched and read all the same lost-at-sea stories we’ve consumed, and she adapts quickly to the struggle. Before you know it, she’s already fashioning a spear to harpoon dinner. She’s got this.

Then comes Dillard and his Blumhouse seal of approval. The beach she crashed upon is not one merely interested in starving you or depriving you of civilization. There is something else patrolling the perimeter at night. It stalks, smells, and eats. The indigenous beast first making its presence known by digging up her friend’s rotting body and disappearing it down its gullet. Survival suddenly means more than collecting coconuts and maintaining the fire.

The woman has fought monsters before. While Dillard never specifically spells out past torments, or what actually happened on the boat prior the storm came and dunked her on the creature’s doorstep, we do spot fleeting hints of a life caught in perpetual dismissal. Before the island, she navigated assaults on all fronts, carefully creating a persona that would allow her to bear man’s desire. At least this IT is a horror she can face head-on with spears, rocks, and fire.

The IT is a brute that cannot be handled or manipulated or ignored. With her back against the jungle, her options are limited. Times up. Fuck flight. Fight. And what a brawl it is. Dillard and his creature effects team deliver the goods where the monster is concerned. Sure, there’s some CG covering, liberal use of darkness, and calculated editing to hide the seams, but when the showdown is demanded by the narrative every subscriber to Famous Monsters of Filmland will go home happy.

Sweetheart is a cheap quickie of a monster movie that rages with relevance. It is an unbelievable scenario that many fictional (often male) characters have faced and conquered, but for this shipwrecked woman, the confrontation erupts from a war routinely waged in mundane, tiny affronts. Her strikes stem from an anger that recently reached a boil, and the next monster she faces should already be quaking in HIS boots.

Brad Gullickson :Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.