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My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To ★★★★



Director: Jonathon Cuartas

Cast: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell

Released: Tribeca Film Festival 2021

An unparalleled love for siblings is the focus of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, with its modern interpretation of supernatural bloodlust absent romanticism and gore. The film re-creates that sense of isolation similar to these pandemic-stricken times in its portrait of sacrifice as the tenets of a family bond are tested. The film presents an austere backdrop in this slow-paced, chillingly beautiful film reminiscent of Rose: A Love Story and Let The Right One In with its portrayal of the mundanity of life, which underpins family structures provides that cohesion.

The film’s straightforward narrative explores the societal constructs devised by siblings in the absence of a functional parental structure.  Thomas, the youngest sibling, is suffering from an unknown debilitating illness causing him to crave blood, in other words, a vampiric desire, whilst his elder siblings Dwight and Jessie, played compellingly by Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Sophie Schram, are willing to protect him and his thirst by any means necessary.  My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is never explicit in its treatment of Thomas and his condition. There is no judgement, but a level of sympathy is levelled towards him for the life that he has lost, as he is seemingly innocent. Owen Campbell excellently portrays the unassuming, timid Thomas with his expressive loneliness and desire to be like other teenagers.  Instead, his existence is confined to a home devout of any light, sparsely furnished and within which his role is burdensome.

The film subtly analyses this impact on Jessie and Dwight by virtue of their attentiveness to Thomas’ insatiable appetite as Dwight seeks those deemed ‘invisible’ by society to quench Thomas’ desire.  It is a humane, sensitive portrait within Jonathan Cuartas’ direction of what is, in essence, an exploration of the human condition. My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To presents that unspoken question as to the extremes in which we may help loved ones at the risk of our humanity and moral compass. The film requires its audience to reflect as to whether doing the wrong thing, which may be criminal, for the right reasons could ever be justified in the name of familial love and is very dark in tone.

Cuartas’ feature debut explores this notion in a purposeful way with long takes and silences as Thomas’ wellbeing is at the core of the storyline. It is a film with heart that slowly unravels as its characters’ individual desires threaten the family nexus. Whilst the film is primarily presented from Dwight’s perspective, this device provides the audience with the opportunity to question inwardly the motives and methods employed. Dwight harbours a desire to build a world outside of the claustrophobic construct of the microcosm in which the three of them inhabit, and the cinematography skillfully depicts this longing with minimal exposition. Fugit’s tender performance is captivating and successfully conveys that sensation of being trapped by familial obligations.

Jessie positions herself in the middle of this triangle as the glue cementing the structure. Again, Schram’s impressive performance, whose expressions re-create that sense of dread pervading the film, like Sissy Spacek in Carrie, when under attack. As such, it is often Jessie’s reactions, either calculatingly cold or violent, that seem more sinister than the potential threat that Thomas’ condition imposes, and the film effectively ratchets up that tension like a pot threatening to boil over.

Despite My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’s lack of character development and plot, the captivating camera angles combined with the emotion seeping through the film and the sense of the quotidian compellingly counter this element and ensure that the film remains gripping. Plus, there is a rhythmic soundtrack complete with random karaoke performances, which lend a sense of nostalgia to the film and assist its ability to get under the audiences’ skin, with minimal jump scares.

Overall, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a watchable study of a familial bond within a supernatural context that will slightly unsettle its audience with its beautifully bleak message. Cuartas will certainly be a director to watch after this impressive entry within the psychological horror-thriller genre.

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