One of the best things about being a part of the #HorrorCommunity on Twitter is that you hear about movies that get looked over by the general masses. J.D Dillard’s Sweetheart (2019) is a shining example of this. 2019 was a good year for horror in that it gave us Jordan Peele’s Us, Ari Aster’s Midsommar, The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep, and countless other movies that received well-deserved marketing and praise. Sweetheart though was one of the best horror movies of 2019 that didn’t get much hype or marketing. Now that it’s available on Netflix, I think it’s time we give this horror gem a better look.
Why Didn’t We Hear More?
Before you start, I know that Sweetheart was an indie movie and that it’s unfair to compare the marketing of an independent movie to films with behemoth production companies and marketing teams behind them. What I’ll say about that is, I’ve seen indie movies get spread through word of mouth before. I heard about Tigers Are Not Afraid a full year before I was able to see it and though I’ve never seen a trailer for Daniel Isn’t Real, I’m simply waiting for my next paycheck to rent it on Amazon.
With Sweetheart though, the horror scene was eerily quiet. I saw a poster for the 2019 film in late November 2018, but other than that, I never saw a trailer, a blog post, or anything about it floating along my timeline. I’m not really sure why that is. Anyway, I’m not here to dwell on the lack of hype this movie received. I’m here to tell you why this movie was easily my favorite of 2019.
Sweetheart Summary (Spoilers)
The best horror stories are the ones you can easily see yourself in. The ones where the scenario isn’t so far fetched that you feel removed from the situation. For example, I recently saw Underwater and though I loved that movie, there are very few (try zero) instances where I’d be in an underwater drill site. The scenario in Sweetheart though seems so much more likely to happen. Planes can crash and leave survivors at the mercy of whatever island they find. Storms form in the middle of the ocean and capsize boats with no warning. I’m going on a trip in July in which I’ll be at sea for at least five days, and let me tell you, I’m already terrified at the possibilities
The protagonist of Sweetheart, Jenn, is left stranded on an island after the boat she’s on with her friends sinks during a storm. The person she washes up with dies very quickly and suddenly Jenn is all alone with little resources or hope for survival. That hope dims, even more, when Jenn realizes that she is not the only one inhabiting this island. There is a grotesque creature that forages for food at night and its favorite meals are humans.
Personally, seeing a black girl in this type of role was incredibly refreshing. Jenn is the kind of protagonist I long to see in horror films. She’s resilient but not perfect, she doubts herself, but she grows into her own strength throughout the course of the movie. Sweetheart gives us a unique spin on the classic man vs nature conflict by not giving us a man at all, but a girl who is incredibly out of her element.
After an impeccable first act, some more survivors of the shipwreck, Jenn’s boyfriend, Lucas, and his friend Mia, wash ashore, and we learn that Jenn isn’t always to be trusted. She has a history of lying and it’s implied that she’s only with her boyfriend because of his money. This bit of dialogue is supposed to paint Jenn in a bad light, but to me, it solidified the fact that Jenn is—above all else—a survivor. Sure, she lies and allows her douchey boyfriend to call her ‘sweetheart’ mockingly, but she’s doing it to ensure her survival.
Keep That Tension
Though I appreciated the tiny bit of backstory, there were still some huge plot lines that weren’t delved into. For instance, it’s heavily implied that Lucas and Mia may have killed another survivor of the shipwreck. We’re never told how or why they did it, but it’s a glaring thread in the story that’s left unanswered.
Another weak point in the movie is only glaring because of one of the film’s strengths. The first act of Sweetheart is incredibly silent. Because Jenn is all alone, there isn’t much dialogue and instead, the movie relies on action to carry it but at no point is the viewer bored with what’s happening onscreen. I was completely engaged, even with no talking, because of the landscape, the tension, and Kiersey Clemmons acting. Not to mention the way the director chose to reveal the monster and then hide it again in shadow for most of the movie was a good choice that kept me alert.
This is why when Lucas and Mia appear, I was a little disappointed. I liked it just being Jenn, the island, and the creature. The silence amped up her isolation. Jenn’s fear and desperation up to this point is palpable. When the others arrive, Jenn has a bit of relief though it is short-lived because they don’t believe her about the island being unsafe. There’s a part of me that kind of wishes that Sweetheart left out Lucas and Mia, partly because of the unexplored threads their presence brings up and because the film would have been forced to carry that tension in the first act all the way through.
Why You Should Watch Sweetheart
The third act of Sweetheart reminded me of another horror movie that centers around a black girl: The Girl With All the Gifts. In that movie, our girl, Melanie, must face off against a force that wants to annihilate her. Melanie’s very existence is at stake, and she must choose between saving the world or saving herself. She chooses herself and ultimately remakes the world in her own image. Jenn’s decision isn’t exactly of the same magnitude, but she fights back against an unimaginable force in spite of her peers not believing in her or even her believing in herself. Jenn chooses herself and in doing so, Sweetheart delivers a message that black girls and women everywhere need to hear more often.
This movie is a quiet hit that I wish more people watched. The creature design was perfect and reminded me of some of Guillermo Del Toro’s work. Sweetheart is available right now on Netflix and for rent on Amazon. Watch the trailer here.
Also! Today marks one month away from my debut novella Cirque Berserk! If you’ve been following me, you know about my love for slashers, black women in horror, and well-rounded villains. This book has all that and more. It’s available for pre-order now on Amazon. It will be available in paperback on the release date.
Read more about Cirque Berserk here: