‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’ Review: Unhappy the Family With a Vampire Sibling

Jonathan Cuartas’ effectively low-key first feature is as much downbeat domestic drama as horror.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To
Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

A recent documentary about caregiving for frail family members was called “It’s Not a Burden,” but that cheerful attitude isn’t shared by the principal figures in “My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To.” They’re adult siblings tethered to a reclusive existence because one of them has a wee abnormality, which demands flesh blood from unfortunate victims the others must scrounge up for him.

Placing more emphasis on dysfunctional domestic drama than thrills, Jonathan Cuartas’ Utah-shot first feature may be too low-key for mainstream horror fans. But the film’s conviction and strong performances should appeal to those who appreciated such prior understated, “realistic” spins on vampire cinema as “The Hamiltons,” George A. Romero’s “Martin,” the original “Let the Right One In,” or more recent “The Transmigration.” Returning to screen at the 2021 Tribeca Fest, “Heart” officially premiered at last year’s severely COVID-compromised edition, and has toured the international festival circuit in between. Dark Sky Films is releasing to limited U.S. theaters and VOD on June 25.

Deliberately muddying time and place so we could be practically anywhere west of the Mississippi during the last 40 years, Cuartas creates a forgotten nowheresville in which it’s credible some ghastly things might go unnoticed. Those things are required of Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) as caretakers of their younger brother Thomas (Owen Campbell), a childlike dependent who eschews daylight, never goes outside and is physically weak at the best of times. He gets much worse without blood — which his siblings must procure for him by picking up, dispatching and draining strangers, like an unfortunate itinerant dumpster diver Dwight brings home at the start here. The corpses get buried in the backyard, their few possessions sold to a thrift shop.

It is a grim cycle that Dwight, in particular, has come to abhor. The family maintains this status quo via near-complete social isolation, as presumably did their parents, whose absence is never fully explained. So it’s already a line-crossing of sorts that Dwight is secretly seeing a prostitute (Katie Preston), with whom he fantasizes running away to a new life.

It is definitely not good news when Jessie — who in her rigid, ruthless rule-enforcement is arguably the true monster here — discovers this pathetic “betrayal” after seeing the woman solicit customers outside the diner she waitresses at. But soon Thomas is showing signs of rebellion as well, agitating to have “friends” and otherwise interact with an outside world he knows nothing about. Their bizarre situation protected only by a lack of prying eyes, the siblings tempt disaster in letting anyone else survive crossing their home’s threshold, a risk eventually taken with figures played by Moises Tovar and Judah Bateman.

The word “vampire” is never spoken here, and “My Heart” keeps discreetly off-screen the one late event that would prove whether there really is something supernatural about Thomas’ “condition.” Indeed, the film as a whole may seem far too reticent for those expecting more conventional genre fodder: This is the kind of enterprise in which much blood is let, but as depicted it seems less harrowing and more of an awkward cleanup dilemma. Yet if terror is not particularly sought after, there is still sufficient tension, and downplaying the story’s fantastical aspect in favor of psychological conflicts lends the whole a persuasive pathos.

That’s particularly the gist of the lead performance by Fugit, who’s also a producer here. Campbell makes Thomas both pitiful and eerie, while Schram’s not-entirely-unsympathetic sister nonetheless makes it clear that beneath her fierce familial loyalty is an even fiercer current of furious resentment.

There are many Cuartases involved here, cinematographer Michael and production designer Rodrigo orchestrating the film’s warm, artful yet deliberately claustrophobic look within a near-square aspect ratio. Andrew Rease Shaw’s original score likewise applies a less-is-more discretion to heightening the limited.

While “My Heart” could have used a more assertive ending than the director’s screenplay comes up with, its sad, furtive characters still linger in the mind well after the blood they’ve spilt has dried.

‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’ Review: Unhappy the Family With a Vampire Sibling

Reviewed in Tribeca Film Festival (online), San Francisco, June 10, 2021. (Also in Sitges, Shanghai, Thessaloniki festivals.) Running time: 89 MIN.

  • Production: A Dark Sky Films release of a Dualist production, in association with Film Exchange. (World sales: Visit Films, Brooklyn.) Producers: Kenny Oiwa Riches, Anthony Pedone, Jesse Brown, Ian Peterson, Patrick Fugit. Executive producers: Matt Wigham, Kenny Oiwa Riches.
  • Crew: Director, writer: Jonathan Cuartas. Camera: Michael Cuartas. Editor: TJ Nelson. Music: Andrew Rease Shaw.
  • With: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell, Moises Tovar, Judah Bateman, Katie Preston. (English, Spanish dialogue)