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Sundance Film Review: ‘Sweetheart’

A shipwreck survivor's stay on a tropical island is less than idyllic in this well-crafted if unmemorable old-school creature feature.

Director:
J.D. Dillard
With:
Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Andrew Crawford, Benedict Samuel.

1 hour 22 minutes

Stripped-down creature feature “Sweetheart” stars Kiersey Clemons (“Dope,” “Transparent”) as a shipwreck survivor on an uninhabited island that unfortunately turns out to have one frequent, unfriendly, nonhuman visitor. The sparing glimpses of the scaly whatsis and near-complete lack of dialogue (to a point) make this a reasonably offbeat wade into a familiar Black Lagoon. But despite decent suspense, “Sleight” director J.D. Dillard’s good-looking second feature is a chiller that’s not quite original or stylish enough to be memorable.

Clemons’ Jenn washes onto her isle barely conscious, though in better shape than a fellow passenger (Benedict Samuel) on her storm-downed pleasure cruise, who quickly expires. The situation is dire, but the heroine proves resourceful, quickly figuring out how to spear-fish and make a fire. She also finds signs of prior habitation: A campsite whose vacationers oddly left their gear behind — and more disturbingly, an apparent group gravesite.

The first sign that she’s not entirely alone comes one morning when the corpse she’s just buried appears to have been violently dug up and dragged away. Then while unsuccessfully trying to capture the attention of a passing plane one night, her flare happens to backlight something standing in the distant surf — something two-legged, but alarmingly tall and fierce-looking. Fierce it is indeed, making nocturnal visits that at first are satisfied with her offerings of fish and other food. But soon enough it come hunting for Jenn.

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Eventually more members of her trip wash up. The survivors interpret Jenn’s tales of a monster as stress-induced paranoia. Naturally, it doesn’t take long before they realize they’re mistaken.

A long roster of final credits is devoted to the amphibious critter itself, from designer Neville Page and actor Andrew Crawford to a raft of VFX, prosthetics and other contributors. Yet as is so often the case with such movies, the best of “Sweetheart” (named after one late-arriving character’s somewhat condescending way of addressing the heroine) is the creepy, teasing early going when we see the murderous thingie in flashes or not at all. Impressive sound design makes the creature’s gurgling growl, as Jenn cowers in hiding, perhaps more frightening than the lizard-man seen full-on.

Character backstory arrives too little, too late. Still, Clemons does just fine etching a woman whose survival instincts won’t let her go down without a serious fight. She carries the film — yet one wishes there were a little more to it. In the end, this is just a straightforward, simple monster movie that could have used some added conceptual ingenuity or plot-twists in the script that Dillard co-wrote with Alex Theurer (also his collaborator on ‘Sleight”) and Alex Hyner. It’s good of its type — just not quite good enough to linger once the lights have come up.

Shot in Fiji, the film benefits from solid tech/design contributions all around, notably from Stefan Duscio’s handsome widescreen lensing, Gina Hirsch’s tense editing and Charles Scott IV’s ominous synth-dominated score.

Sundance Film Review: 'Sweetheart'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Midnight), Jan. 29, 2019. Running time: 82 MIN.

Production: A Blumhouse Prods., Engineer production. (International sales: Film Sales Co., New York.) Producers: Jason Blum, J.D. Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner, Bill Karesh. Co-producers, Mark Katchur, Beatriz Sequeira, Phillip Dawe.

Crew: Director: J.D. Dillard. Screenplay: Dillard, Alex Theurer, Alex Hyner. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Stefan Duscio. Editor: Gina Hirsch. Music: Charles Scott IV.

With: Kiersey Clemons, Emory Cohen, Hanna Mangan Lawrence, Andrew Crawford, Benedict Samuel.

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