Review: My Heart Only Beats When You Tell It To

How far would you go to care for your family? That’s the central question that director Johnathon Cuartas poses with his first feature. Focusing on siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), as they care for their younger brother Thomas (Owen Cambell), who is suffering from a mysterious illness, and a compulsion to drink human blood…

More of a family drama than a vampire flick, and inspired by the director’s experience with a family member in hospice. My Heart Beats is a very different vampire film, but still has plenty to sink your teeth into.

What We Do In The Shadows

Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) care for their sick brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell) // Credit: Dark Sky Films, 2020

It’s never made quite clear if Thomas is a proper vampire, or even if there’s anything supernatural about his affliction. The term is never used and aside from an aversion to daylight and his ghoulish appearance, he doesn’t have any of the traits one associates from other media. Crucially, drinking blood doesn’t make him any stronger, it just lessens his symptoms making it more of a terminal illness than an immortal curse.

This adds another layer of moral ambiguity to the siblings’ actions. The supply of blood being unwillingly supplied by homeless people takes a toll on each of them. Dwight, numb to all the murder, tries to find solace with a prostitute, but with little success. Jessie almost acts like Thomas’ mother, caring for him and working a part-time job. They drift through life, with their caregiving responsibilities taking priority. They can’t stop, but they clearly can’t carry on for much longer either. Thomas at times seems naive about his condition, not fully comprehending the sacrifice his family make to care for him.

There Will Be Blood

Thomas (Owen Campbell) struggles with being kept inside and isolated all the time // Credit: Dark Sky Films, 2020

The film is deliberately small in scope, with the house they live in small, dark and slightly decrepit. The city they live in is equally indistinguishable, which gives a sense this could be happening anywhere. The small cast makes the characters feel even more isolated, the group of children that occasionally pass the house hint at the world outside. It’s easy to understand why Thomas longs to go outside and interact with others.

It’s not a cheerful film, as you might expect, but the family do try to make the most of the situation. There’s a little Christmas tree in the corner and they sing karaoke, but these moments are few and far between. A brief moment where life seems normal. The film isn’t big on scares or set pieces, it’s a slow, family drama. Despite the huge amounts of blood, the murders aren’t particularly gruesome. If anything they’re mundane, as dull as Jessie’s job as a waitress. A chore even. The colours are desaturated, there’s no emotional music, most of the struggles are one static angle, not because the filmmakers don’t know how to make them dramatic, but because they aren’t supposed to be. It’s just the day to day life for Dwight, and there’s nothing special about it, and the film reflects that.

Despite some slightly uneven pacing, the film makes the most of its ninety-minute runtime. Just when it starts to feel like it’s not going anywhere, the third act kicks into gear, and it’s almost blink and you miss it. While it could have explored some obvious questions more, not everything needs an answer.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

While those expecting a traditional horror flick might be disappointed, those looking for something different will find a lot to like. What it lacks in scares it makes up for in a surprising exploration of illness and how it affects not just one person, but their loved ones that care for them as well. It perfectly captures the feelings of helplessness and isolation that comes with it.

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