REVIEW: My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (2020)

dir. Jonathan Cuartas.

Siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) are trying to make ends meet: they work long hours in menial jobs, eat TV dinners and spend their evenings looking after their sickly, housebound brother Thomas (Owen Campbell). Like many carers, Dwight and Jessie will do anything to improve their loved one’s health: unlike others though this includes murdering strangers and harvesting their blood for its restorative power.

Thematically My Heart has multiple strands that delicately intertwine with its core domestic drama, resulting in a rich and nuanced narrative. Whether it’s Dwight who feels he’s being held captive by the grisly responsibilities bestowed on him or Jesse bearing the weight of family matriarch that threatens to rob her of her humanity, both characters are compelling and demand a sympathetic eye. An economic, finely balanced script allows Schram in particular to shine: whether it’s coaxing unsuspecting victims to a motel room or preparing her brother’s “meals”, she laces her performance with maternal authority. In lesser hands, Jesse’s character would devolve into evil step-mother territory, but thankfully the film never retreats into stereotypes.

Comparisons with the excellent Scandi-horror Let the Right One In can be forgiven, with the bleak, frigid cinematography, indie production design and minimal score all reminiscent of the 2008 classic. Furthermore the film’s ability to season dourness with levity pays dividends: one particular scene, in which the family delight at the sight of Dwight struggling to squeeze into an ill-fitting Christmas gift, is genuinely heart-warming. It’s a brief exchange, but cements the siblings’ – and the audience’s – attachment to this unconventional household, showcasing Cuartas as an assured and patient filmmaker.

The resemblance to the vampire sub-genre ends here though, the film openly rebuking much bloodsucker lore and instead offering a fresh take: Thomas isn’t able to fly or mutate into a bat, doesn’t have superhuman strength and isn’t even particularly dapper. Vampirism is depicted as a debilitating disease that weakens its victim to the point where just shuffling from room to room is exhausting. As with Jennifer Sheridan’s Rose – A Love Story it’s fascinating to see a depiction that’s so disparate from what has come before.

What’s left then is a horror film devoid of monsters, the evil instead lying in the desperation of those left to manage an unmanageable situation. A hyper-realistic vampiric tale of draining familial responsibility, it’s intelligent enough to know that the darkness and hopelessness that exist in the depths of humanity is scarier than an army of coffin-dwelling undead.

⭐⭐⭐⭐

Alex Kronenburg

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