Writer/director Jonathan Cuartas creates a bleak and yet forgiving world in his feature film debut My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, which has just had its North American premiere at Nightstream Fest. The film follows two siblings taking care of their younger brother who is extremely sick. The setup is established quickly, and the horror aspect becomes quite apparent in the first ten minutes: their brother can only survive on human blood. While that element technically makes it a vampire film, Cuartas isn’t too concerned about the lore.
The center tension stems from the relationship between the older brother, Dwight (Patrick Fugit), and their sister, Jesse (Ingrid Sophie Schram). It’s not clear how long their younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell), has been a vampire, but ever since he has, Jesse’s only priority is keeping him safe and as healthy as possible. Dwight, on the other hand, has grown weary of this lifestyle. The fact that he’s the one largely responsible for acquiring Thomas’ “food” has visibly taken its toll. Throughout the film, the tension rises between the three of them, and even Thomas begins to rebel against the limits of his own affliction and the strictness of his sister.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To begs the question: how much would you sacrifice for your family? While initially, it’s tempting to say “as much as I have to,” the film poses the negatives of that answer. This is seen primarily in Dwight, who Patrick Fugit fully embodies to heartbreaking results. You see his anguish in every facial expression he makes, and it’s clear that what’s best for him is to leave his family. He alludes to his desire to leave throughout the movie, but he can’t fully bring himself to live with the repercussions, and deep down he really does love them. Cuartas taps into this all-too-human instinct so effectively, making it difficult not to empathize with Dwight. Jesse, who’s commitment to protecting Thomas is admirable at first, has lost pieces of her own humanity, while Dwight is desperately clinging to every bit he has left.
It’s clear right from the beginning that Cuartas knew exactly how he wanted the film to look and feel. The story is extremely focused, with more attention given to the characters than to the overall situation which, thankfully, is not a detriment. It wouldn’t pack the emotional punch that it does if the characters weren’t given the right amount of depth. It also helps that the actors are more than up to the task to tackle this material. Ingrid Sophie Schram as Jesse exudes so much coldness to the point where you become desperate for her to show any sort of warmth or humanity. Owen Campbell is haunting as Thomas. His demeanor is so meek and innocent that at times you almost forget that he’s a vampire and not just a sick kid. Fugit as Dwight ties it all together, bearing every ounce of sadness and trauma in his physical presence. Cuartas uses these exceptional performances to his advantage, making sure that every aspect of the filmmaking benefits them and the story.
The film at its core is a heart-wrenching family drama. The horror elements it does have are subtle yet extremely effective. The few instances of brutality fit in with the overall tone, never feeling out of place or gratuitous. Despite the dark elements, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is oddly hopeful and doesn’t totally leave you emotionally stagnant. Its barebones take on a vampire story is extremely admirable. It never shows more than it needs to, staying faithful to the story that it’s set out to tell. For a film about a vampire it’s deeply human, which is what makes it so moving and ultimately very worth watching.
Dir: Jonathan Cuartas
Scr: Jonathan Cuartas
Cast: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell
Prd: Kenny Oiwa Riches, Anthony Pedone, Jesse Brown, Ian Peterson, Patrick Fugit
DOP: Michael Cuartas
Runtime: 90 minutes
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is currently screening at the Nightstream film festival and has no official release date at this time.