starring Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell
written and directed by Jonathan Cuartas
by Walter Chaw The reason Dwight (Patrick Fugit) goes to diners is to eat a little toast, drink some coffee, and listen to other people go about their lives. His sister, Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram), waits tables at one where she suffers the indignities of the service industry with pallid, resigned despair. Between them, the extent to which they can empathize with people beyond their bubble will drive their existence to a crisis. Cut from the same cloth as Jim Mickle's exceptional We Are What We Are and destined to be compared to Tomas Alfredson's Let the Right One In, My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To (hereafter My Heart), the hyphenate debut of Jonathan Cuartas, finds its closest analogue in Claire Denis's Trouble Every Day, which is similarly about the brutal banality and biological horror of caring for a terminally-ill loved one. Dwight and Jessie look after their brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell--so good in Super Dark Times), who needs to drink blood to survive. Sunlight burns him badly and instantly. Well into puberty, he still acts like a child--not for any sort of mental disability, but rather, we surmise, because of a lifetime spent in a handful of the same rooms, his brother and sister as his sole companions.
Thomas, wide-eyed with longing, wants to meet the neighbour kids and writes notes on paper airplanes he sends out towards the front walk. One night, one of them accepts the invitation. Thomas says that he's home-schooled and wants to play a game involving playing a few notes on an organ and having the listener guess the year the piece was composed. One approach to My Heart, which is set in Salt Lake City, is to see it as the ways in which fundamentalist religion creates insularity and constricts social development. When you establish yourself as the pure amongst a horde of soulless animals, the possessor of a great secret or a sacred trust, it can only justify, even encourage and celebrate, violence in its defense. Taken in this way, as Dwight begins to fall away from his "beliefs," his devotion to the ritual of maintaining his monstrous siblings slipping in pace with his apostasy, he becomes a metaphor for waking from a cult--or an organized religion, to the extent that that's different. Dwight sees a motor-inn hooker, Pam (Katie Preston), regularly. After one session, he offers her a few extra dollars to sit and talk with him. "What do you want to talk about?" she asks, and he doesn't know. Jessie figures it out, and removes temptation in a way that suggests she understands how fragile are the bonds that tie their family together. Jessie and Dwight, see, hunt the homeless and the otherwise-forgotten, bleed them dry into buckets and coolers, and bury their bodies on unmarked plots of land. Dwight finds an itinerant worker one night, Eduardo (Moises L. Tovar), who doesn't speak English (Dwight doesn't speak Spanish), but we learn anyway how Eduardo has come here searching for something better. Look at him now.
Dwight creates his own story of Eduardo's troubles, and we begin to understand how empathy--sonder, to be more precise--works, this awakening to how everyone you meet on the street shares your sadness and complexity. The details aren't as important as the realization. It's a dangerous thing for a predator to develop--its own kind of terminal illness. A predator can't continue to be a predator once so infected. Jessie warns Dwight that this whore she's bagged didn't go easy, so the corpse is a little messy as she props it against the kitchen table. Then she yanks out a gold filling and wonders how much it might be worth. Seeing the little things he once treasured about a lover's body in a horrible, post-mortal context causes Dwight's illness of the heart to metastasize. It spreads to his hands, slows them when they need to be quick. It dims his vision when it needs to be vivid, his wits when they need to be sharp. Dwight starts thinking about leaving; Jessie refuses to allow it. Thomas, well--Thomas is very tired. The burden of having others tend to you is, for a depressed person, sometimes the final, insurmountable upset.
My Heart is beautiful and horrible in exactly the way decrepitude and illness can be. As the string of a lifetime plays out, we see signs daily of how little time our most precious loved ones have left--and they see the same in us. The picture is also about what happens when we open ourselves up to a larger world of possibilities; about how taking chances that others will not betray you (like poor Eduardo, twice-deceived) will sometimes lead to heartbreak yet sometimes leads to friends you'll keep for the rest of your life. Connection is difficult, but it's the only thing valuable enough to risk so much for, while insularity and blind adherence to rituals and routine inevitably lead to madness in isolation. There's an obvious lesson here as we fight losing battles against cults of personality and apocalypses--My Heart's message seems to be how our best hope is to force empathy on monsters. When they're able to see the homeless, the immigrants, the sex workers as human beings who fear, long, dream, that's the point at which we take our next steps as a species. It's possible, however bleak the outlook. My Heart ends with Dwight at the edge of a lake--maybe it's the Great Salt Lake--on a rocky beach, elated at a moment's respite away from his responsibilities. And then he looks down and to the left, like something is calling to him, pulling him from behind as strongly as the water has beckoned him towards it. And then we're left to sort it out by ourselves, in the dark, the first tentative cries of our neglected better selves our only company