'Sweetheart' Maroons Kiersey Clemons On An Island With Man-Eating Monster [Fantastic Fest 2019]

J.D. Dillard's Sweetheart is fierce aquatic horror without any frills. Think Cast Away, but instead of a volleyball companion named "Wilson," it's a man-eating sea monster who hunts by moonlight. There's your plot. A marooned survivor with no immediate escape and her fishman rival. Simplicity can be a beautiful thing, and Dillard's waterlogged grudge match is one such occasion. Many thanks to Fantastic Fest's programmers for granting Sweetheart's alluring intensity one last theatrical screening before Blumhouse releases Dillard's latest straight to VOD in late October.Kiersey Clemons stars as Jenn, who washes ashore a sunkissed sandy beach that'd represent an exotic island getaway given better circumstances. Instead, Jenn finds herself stranded after a vicious storm destroys her and her friends' sailing vessel. Two corpses float to land with Jenn, leaving her alone and digging graves. She finds supplies from previous inhabitants – soda, tools – but nightfall brings a horrifying discovery. Jenn's not alone, and worse off, she's now seen as prey by something wicked living underwater.

Dillard's script with co-writer Alex Hyner goes hard into the monster aesthetic of genre filmmaking, always ever about man versus beast. It's an elemental showdown of fire versus water, devolving into primordial battle strategies. Introductions don't bide time. Jenn promptly uses decaying human remains to confirm her shadow lurker foe has a taste for flesh and blood. If Jenn's not careful, she will be eaten, torn apart, or dragged into the bottomless black pit Dillard's creature calls home. Once dusk settles, tension ratches three levels into the appropriate danger zone – and stays constant every time darkness falls.

My rule is not to spoil what's kept out of trailers, so let's stay focused on Clemons' largely muted role. She's a contender, exudes grit, and keeps her wits in fighter mode as the carnivore emerges. Jenn is outmatched one-on-one given straight brawl scenarios, but ingenuity through traps and decoys grants situational advantages never too far-reaching. What's commendable about Sweetheart is there's nothing complicated about Jenn's story, nor does she require cockamamie workarounds to survive twenty-four more hours (at a time). Dillard's proficient in raw, seafaring intensity without grand inventions – lean, mean, and swift like a projectile torpedo.

Cinematographer Stefan Duscio rises to the occasion of injecting tropical extravagance into every scene. Fiji's Bounty Islands grant Duscio luscious green jungles, wavy palm trees, and crystal blue waters intended for aerial helicopter shots that'd sell racks of vacationer postcards. Pristine tourist landscapes are marred by isolation as crashing waves make more of an audible impact than musical scoring. Dillard wants you to understand Jenn's distance from civilization, driving home the limited options she faces if she wants to remain alive. There's no alternate choice besides defense, confirmed by the film's technical unification.

Most impressive is the practical animal suit from special effects artists John Howard and Adam Howarth (Weta Workshop credited as "Mould Maker"), which is a towering, snarly beast. Without spoiling the character's design, know that Dillard isn't about saving full reveals for a last-minute glimpse. Sweetheart is a monster movie that's proud to showcase its feature creature, first backlit standing tall in coastal shallows right before Jenn's flare extinguishes in oceanic waters. It's this pit-in-your-stomach "Ohhh no!" moment that returns whenever the faster-in-water demon attacks Jenn. Especially during an homage to The Shape Of Water, except poetic aqua-ballet twirling is traded for mealtime devastation.

You're watching Sweetheart to witness Kiersey Clemons enter tribal combat with some Guillermo del Toro lookin' ocean mutant, but J.D. Dillard adds an artful touch. Carnage can't swiftly strike, otherwise where'd the conflict exist with only one primary protagonist? A foreign invader who disrupts an existing ecosystem finds herself stinking of fresh meat, as she tries to quietly leave but finds herself under attack just for existing (hidden subtext, perhaps). Visual stimulation is the film's secret ingredient, with some stunning cinematography and sound enhancement that heightens the horrors of overboard desperation. One woman, one gilled foe, one gorgeous escape ploy that rations tension as to sustain all 90-ish minutes.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10