Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

I never thought I’d use the phrase “surprisingly tender” when describing a vampire film, but My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is here to prove me wrong. Jonathan Cuartas writes and directs a passionate and complex horror drama that feels achingly personal. It reassesses vampire lore through the lens of a terminal illness, something I’ve never seen done before. Even for the detractors who will claim there isn’t enough action for their sensibilities, there is no diminishing the sheer amount of originality and talent on display. We follow Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and his sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) as they do whatever it takes to keep their sickly brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) alive.

The opening scene shows the ugliness of what they’ll do to provide for their brother. Dwight picks up a vagrant from the street, beats him with a bat, then drains his blood with the help of Jessie. They feed it to Thomas in a small bowl. The focus is never on the violence; rather, the tightness of the sibling tensions and relationships are at the core. Even in the more macabre moments, My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To hones in on the interconnectivity of the siblings. A pivotal moment bathes Dwight in bright light—this represents the culmination of event and also the peak of Dwight at his most emotionally vulnerable.

This gripping, deceptively sharp film represents strong indie filmmaking and devotion to telling an honest story. The pace is slower, and as such, will instantly not appeal to a certain subset of selective viewers. For those who like their horror gory and wild, they can go elsewhere. For everyone else, a devastating, deeply moving vampire flick is awaiting them.

My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To screened at the Cleveland International Film Festival, April 15th – 28th, 2021.

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