Written and directed by Jonathan Cuartas, in his feature film debut, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the story of two siblings forced into a violent life of murder to protect and provide for their sick brother. The film stars Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) and Ingrid Sophie Schram (Phantom Thread), Owen Campbell (Super Dark Times), and Moises L. Tovar (Osombie) in a short-lived but heartbreaking performance as a homeless man captured by the family. The film was an official selection of the 202o Tribeca Film Festival, where it would have world premiered if not for the Covid-19 Pandemic, but has returned to the festival for its day in the sun.
Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie’s (Ingrid Sophie Schram) brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) is very sick. So sick that he has to be lifted from bed to eat and requires assistance with every daily task. Thomas is so fragile that he can’t even spend a second in the sunlight without being horribly burned, because (that’s right! you guessed it) Thomas is a scum-sucking vampire. That isn’t to stay that Thomas is roaming the streets in a black cloak, hunting down his next human meal. Instead, the film comes at the vampire story from a much more clinical point of view. Thomas is sick, and the only medicine for his ailment is human blood. We don’t know how Thomas became a vampire or how his brother and sister learned that blood was the only solution, but we do know that they have been kidnapping and murdering homeless people for a long time. Dwight and Jessie have been “Renfielding” for so long, in fact, that the entire process is all very routine four them. Just another house chore to cross off the to-do list like buying groceries or burying the recycling in a shallow grave out back.
One of the first things you’re bound to notice in My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is the aspect ratio of the film. It’s presented in a 4:3 format (which I associate mostly with every fullscreen DVD my mother insisted on buying in the late 90s), not unlike Zack Snyder’s 4-hour Justice League. The decision was made, I assume, to representing the isolated, boxed-in feeling of our main characters. Personally, I think the film does a perfectly fine job highlighting that with story and atmosphere alone, but it’s an artistic choice and not one that will take you out of the film for more than a minute or two up top. Letterboxing has become incredibly popular on the film festival circuit in the last year, but rarely does it seemed used with a lasting purpose. With 90s nostalgia slowly creeping in, I can’t help but look at those big black bars like scrunchies. For a while, they were everywhere we looked, and now (while supplies last) they’re back baby!
That isn’t to say that I don’t have a fondness for the 4:3 aspect ratio, or that I don’t immediately assume a time period for the story. Also, That tight frame completely changes how shots are composed and how much information you see onscreen at any given time. You know there is more to see and experience, but you’ve got blinders on and you can’t focus on anything other than what is right there in front of you (or they just liked how it looked. That’s probably the real reason). Michael Cuartas’ cinematography perfectly captures the closed-in world of Dwight, Jessie, and Thomas, while still giving you a sense of the world that has them surrounded. Keep an eye out for a handful of brilliantly photographed sequences in Dwight‘s truck when the world that’s been passing him by is layered over top of him through window reflections. For years, I have been obsessed with the bright, welcoming palm trees overlayed on the smiling face of Naomi Watts in Mullholland Drive, and I can’t help but see those sad shots in Dwight’s truck as incredibly gloomy, much less optimistic cousins.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is not an action-packed pseudo-vampire saturated in the blood of 100 fun set pieces. Instead, it’s a stripped-down story about a family so desperate to hold onto the life they have known, that they’ve sucked themselves dry without even knowing it. They’ve been feeding off each other for so long in this violent co-dependent relationship that they’ve all become monsters, isolated from the rest of the world. Even when Dwight and Jessie leave the house, they move through the world like creatures from another planet. Part of that comes from the exhaustion of having to work all day and care for your maybe-but-maybe-not (but definitely) vampire brother all night, but these three have been living on the outskirts of humanity for so long that they no longer have any connection to anyone outside of the house. They have given up so much of themselves to save the life of their sick brother that they have all become dead inside.
The film’s harshest critics will call it slow and boring, and its most ardent supporters will refer to it as an understated slow burn. I’m going to politely call it deliberately paced. Life inside the house with these three siblings is drab and depressing. They experience no joy and, in their own way, are looking for an escape. Thomas dreams of one day being able to leave the house and make friends. His brother Dwight, desperate to put an end to the killings, dreams of starting a new life in a new town, and their sister Jessie wants nothing more than for the whole world to disappear and leave the three of them alone. They love each other so much that they would do anything to protect one another, but that love has taken them to dark places and they are now prisoners in a jail of their own making.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is by no means the feel-good movie of the year. It is a slow-building character study of three people pushed to their limits when faced with a life-altering situation. As a horror fan, I really wanted the film to explore the darker aspects of these character’s lives more but the “horror” is just a backdrop for a more personal story about the relationship between Dwight, Jessie, and Thomas. Coming at the story from that angle, it’s a jumping-off point for some great performances from the entire cast, especially Fugit and Schram who have been warped in very different ways by the horrors of their new life. In some instances, however, the movie seemed to deliberately avoid showing anything that would earn it a Horror Movie classification. It’s very much a dramatic arts interpretation of a horror story, but one that still excels in showcasing the emotional turmoil of a family poisoned by the blood they all share.
Jonathan Cuartas’ My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is an official selection of the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival, and is set for limited theatrical and VOD release on June 25, 2021 through Dark Sky Films. Click HERE to follow our full coverage of the festival and be sure to let us know if you’re excited to check out this mumblegore vampire flick over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.