Jonathan Cuartas’s debut feature My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To cuts deep into a world of family ties, classic lore and sacrifice.
Thomas (Owen Campbell) has a doting brother Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and an overbearing sister Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), taking care of him like helicopter parents. The reason being that Thomas is frail from an illness, and the only remedy is blood. Fresh, human blood. It’s up to Dwight to lure people back to their home so Jessie can bleed them out for Thomas’s next meal. The killings take a toll on Dwight, along with Jessie’s insistence to keep their brother alive. When Dwight botches the capture of a victim, and Thomas wants to make friends, their insular world spirals out of control with damning consequences.
Co-dependency, familial obligations and being the caregiver for sick family members are real-world issues. Add a fantastical element, and it gives these issues an intensity that hammers the point home. Cuartas did an excellent job portraying this with a horrific edge, leaving the drama to linger in the psyche long after. He shows two points of view: a reluctant caregiver seeing the ailing family member as a literal leech, sapping the best of their family. Then there’s the sick relative who wants a bit of joy, angry with the pain, illness and their sheltered life. I see a nudge towards not so much a view on but acknowledging the assisted suicide argument to top it off.
When you’re poor, desperation sets in as well, with nowhere to turn except to extreme measures. The frustration Dwight suppresses, and the fierce, matriarchal loyalty Jessie exhibits taking care of Thomas is real, even though the story is in the genre world. There’s a sacrifice that comes with obligation, made glaringly clear with Dwight’s nightly trolling for victims; sacrifice on the part of the victim and with Dwight and Jessie’s lives – devoted to their otherworldly brother. Within the vampire lore, Thomas is more like Renfield than Dracula, and he exhibits a child-like mind, an innocence you image comes from his shut-in lifestyle.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is all based on moving performances. Campbell is so good, using his physicality to grasp the neediness of Thomas. Fugit, breaking out in Almost Famous, robbed when the supernatural series Outcast was cancelled, is a consistently underrated actor. He excels as the tortured Dwight is stuck under his sister’s oppressive thumb. Jessie is my first encounter with Schram, and her angular stature works well as the overbearing mother figure. Together, they create an oddball, dysfunctional dynamic that features a slow, stagnant death of their nuclear family. What also helps is the cinematography by Jonathan’s brother Michael Cuartas, the low lighting and the dark, sepia-toned color palette that mimics an old photo album, showing that this trio has been left behind as the world progresses.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a slow-motion gut punch for anyone who is a caregiver to the chronically ill or the aging. Like Natalie Erika James’ Relic, it’s a way of representing the guilt, fear of being a burden, sacrifice and resentment with the lore of a classic creature.