As a species, we are drawn to stories of struggle and the triumph of the human spirit against nigh-unbeatable circumstances. Perhaps we like to see humans succeed in worst-case scenarios or maybe we just like thinking that, in the worst of times, we too could rise to the challenge. Whatever the case, the struggle for survival seems to be an ongoing theme across global cultural storytelling.
What they're surviving, though, varies - and gives us a look at what we most truly fear. Mostly, these movies involve staying alive through the harsh conditions of a vast wilderness. Sometimes, a more aggressive threat is added in, like an untamed animal or a human competing for the few resources available. The unknown is a theme in many of them, too. The biggest threat is isolation, and keeping spirits up and mind sharp in the face of vast challenges.
J.D. Dillard's 'Sweetheart' stars Kiersey Clemons ('Hearts Beats Loud') as Jenn, a young woman who finds herself marooned on a deserted island after a storm destroys the yacht she was aboard. She washes up on the beach with her friend, Brad (Benedict Samuel), who is badly wounded by a chunk of coral and quickly dies.
We know nothing about Jenn. It's just her, on an island, walking around and looking for stuff. With no help forthcoming, Jenn is forced to fall back on her virtually nonexistent survival skills, employing scavenged items to keep herself fed and sheltered as she fights off a private kind of despair. It's a simplistic narrative until Jenn realises that she isn't alone, a creative decision that occurs midway through and locks the film into horror genre territory.
'Sweetheart', which takes place predominately on a single small island in Fiji, plays games with the cover of total darkness, concealing the threat in the inky black abyss that surrounds Jenn's campfire each night. Eventually, however, the menace reveals itself in spectacular fashion - according to Dillard, this was the first scene he imagined when he came up with the film. The monster is a imposing-looking practical creation (with a few dabs of CGI) that could have escaped from a 'Predator' or 'Alien' inspired flick from the 1980s. It's the creation of designer Neville Page, an extremely accomplished effects specialist known for his work on spectacle movies like 'Cloverfield', 'Avatar' and 'Prometheus', who has known Dillard since their days together at J.J. Abrams's Bad Robot Productions.
Dillard's film is refreshingly free of exposition, technology, gadgets, lens-flare-speckled cheesecake shots of toned bodies and needless backstory.
Dillard's film is refreshingly free of exposition, technology, gadgets, lens flare-speckled cheesecake shots of toned bodies and needless backstory. The monster isn't just a monster, of course. It's clearly also a metaphor for... something. Because, if anything, 'Sweetheart' is a movie about a woman empowering herself as an individual. On the island, Jenn does everything for herself and is in complete control, but we gradually receive some clues about who she was in the real world. There are subtle messages of class division and white privilege, as well as a bit of a social message tied into the title but it's handled unobtrusively and supports the story being told.
Clemons is impressive in what is, for a big chunk of the running time, a silent one-woman show. Jenn is determined and savvy, doesn't hesitate to fight back when threatened, and proves that she is able to make quick, difficult decisions under pressure. 'Sweetheart' also represents an advance for Dillard, whose previous film, 'Slight', was a flawed mishmash of crime melodrama and science fiction. His next film might be an even bigger leap forward - Dillard has been tapped to be the first black person to ever film a movie instalment in the 'Star Wars' universe.
Cleverly directed on a low-budget, 'Sweetheart' is a streamlined, satisfying mix of old-school monster action and island survival thrills.