My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To (2021) review

By David Dent

“The family that slays together, stays together” may be an ad line as old as the hills, but it’s also a pretty good summary of what’s going on in Jonathan Cuartas’s debut feature.

Siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit), Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) and Thomas (Owen Campbell) live in a house where the Christmas decorations stay up way past the yuletide season, and most of their living takes place at night. Thomas is sick; he’s kept alive by human blood courtesy of random strangers brought home and killed by Dwight.

It’s unclear how long this setup has been going on, but all seem accustomed to their duties; Dwight as a strange hunter gatherer, and Jessie setting lifestyle boundaries for Thomas and home schooling him (he’s of indeterminate age). But all is not well: Dwight tires of their existence and fantasises about escape, making plans with a prostitute who he’s befriended (Katie Preston) which ends badly. Thomas gets sicker and no amount of ‘food’ seems to bring him out of his lethargy (although all three look pretty unwholesome). But the bonds of family hold them together, even as events run to an almost inevitable dark conclusion.

‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’ (it’s a line from one of the songs that features on the family’s karaoke machine) plays like the last act of a film depicting the breakdown of the family; by the time we arrive on the scene, the characters already seem doomed. The v-word is never mentioned and, until one scene where Thomas exposes himself to sunlight and gets scorched, it’s touch and go whether the emaciated youth really needs blood or just a decent meal inside him. Nothing is explained in the film and very little takes place outside of the confines of the house in which they all live, seemingly cocooned from the world. Cuartas’s film is very strange indeed; it doesn’t all work, but it maintains a sombre pitch throughout and a sense of moral devastation that’s pretty hard to shake off.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To will be released on Digital Download from 28th June 2021.

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