We all need some alone time now and then, but I think even the most introverted of introverts will be happy to have some real human contact when this is all over. Meanwhile, Sweetheart (2019, Netflix, directed by JD Dillon) provides a stark example of self-isolation to the extreme, while exploring the question of whether or not other people exist just to ruin your alone time.
Jenn (Kiersey Clemons) wakes up on a tropical shore, apparently the only survivor of a shipwreck. Yeah, there’s someone else, but he’s mostly dead, and by the time Jenn is able to help him, he’s just…normal dead. Apparently not one to dwell on the recent past, Jenn gets right to work exploring the island and preparing for survival. She comes across a long-abandoned campsite that includes a cooler full of Cokes, some Polaroids, matches, and an original Nintendo Game Boy, so we know it’s been there for a while. There are also several hints that the island is more Lost than Castaway, including but not limited to, a swirling vortex of doom at the bottom of the ocean. Clemons spends the next 45 minutes of the movie by herself and manages to show a wide range of emotions with very little dialogue. Jenn is clever and a quick study in surviving alone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for a monster to appear. Jenn’s first fights against the monster happen in almost pitch darkness, making it hard to see the creature. For a while, Jenn is able to stay alive using her wits. But then her boyfriend Lucas (Emory Cohen) comes along in a life raft to ruin everything. He’s joined by fellow survivor Mia (Hanna Mangan Lawrence) and, like the patronizing white people they are, they don’t believe Jenn’s account of the monster. Just when you’re ready to crack Lucas and Mia over the head with some island coconuts, they learn the hard way that Jenn was right. And while Jenn never says, “I told you so,” we, the audience, definitely should because Lucas and Mia suck.
Sweetheart is fantastically inclusive thanks to Jenn, who is so much more than your standard “strong Black woman” cliché. Clemons nails the job of playing Jenn as nuanced, thoughtful, and willing to ditch the dummies who can’t get over their own privilege in order to save their very lives. She’s not going to waste time or breath on these jerks. If they won’t listen, then they can stay on the island and fend for themselves.
As in real life, when Lucas and Mia catch Jenn trying to escape instead of taking care of them and have her admit that she’s wrong and possibly…probably…definitely crazy, they knock her unconscious and tie her to a tree.
This is problematic on several levels. First, she’s Black, and being tied up by hostile White people already put me on edge, and I’m a middle-class White woman watching this on TV, so I can’t possibly begin to imagine what being tied up by White people would do to a Black woman in real life. Second, Jenn is a week-long survivor of the island and is still warning them, but Lucas and Mia are too wrapped up in their own sense of superiority to be good listeners. Third, both Lucas and Mia use Jenn’s captivity as an opportunity to victim-blame and victim-shame by reminding Jenn of previous lies she’s told and questioning her sanity. Fourth, Lucas –Jenn’s boyfriend and someone who should care about her — tears her down in no uncertain terms by reminding her that she’s poor, lonely, and without resources beyond what he gives her. He even goes so far as to whine that she has always had a “black cloud” following her until that black cloud materialized as a storm and ruined his party with a shipwreck.
And with that, Lucas has mansplained, whitesplained, richsplained, and several other -splaineds in one short scene while Jenn is tied up on the ground and he literally lords over her. If she was miserable with him and his friends, it was her own fault for not smiling more, according to Lucas. Since the only other party-goers we see are white and, presumably, rich, the burden has been put on Jenn to stop being the Debbie Downer and show a little gratitude to them for including her at all. Which begs the question: why was Lucas with Jenn? Was she his attempt at appearing “woke?” Was she his form of rebellion? Did he just want someone exotic on his arm? Whatever his reason, it clearly wasn’t that he loved her for herself, because if he did, he would have paid more attention to her discomfort as the only black person in the group and as someone who likely suffered from depression.
Sweetheart is also inclusive in the sense that it passes the Bechdel Test, barely. While Jenn is tied up, Mia stands over her and proceeds to gaslight the hell out of our woeful heroine. They both have names and they’re not talking about a man. So while Jenn and Mia’s conversation passes that particular test, Mia’s not exactly an intersectional feminist nor a strong female character.
Ultimately, Jenn is triumphant in defeating her foes both human and other. Director JD Dillard explains the movie’s ending over here with a fantastic quote about what it’s like to face our own monsters in real life. And while the film’s ending might not be quite as happy or straightforward as some viewers would like, there is no doubt that Jenn has proven to herself that she’s here to be taken seriously: ignore her at your own risk.
Movie Review originally published by Meredith Morgenstern on Medium