Vampirism has been used to explore many societal issues and fears. When used properly, it really hits its mark. That’s why when watching MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO, the utilization of a vampiric disease to personify the painful realities of addiction and how it impacts family unit really hits home. Writer and director Jonathan Cuartas crafts a wholly realistic and heartbreaking tale that will leave you gasping for air and wondering what would have happened if things had been different.
Clocking in at a short 89 minutes, Cuartas tosses us straight into the situation at hand. Siblings Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) have been putting all of their energy into keeping their baby brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) alive. The kicker? He has a vampiric disease that requires a neverending supply of blood. However, for reasons left unsaid, the siblings have kept him completely locked away. Instead, choosing to pick up vulnerable people off the street to serve up. While Jessie seems to have no problem with this routine, Dwight is starting to buckle under the weight of responsibility that comes with murder. And it’s from here that things really start to spiral.
Looking at it from a broader perspective, MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO could easily be viewed from a lens of the burden of taking someone who is chronically ill with no end in sight. If you dig further, it appears to be a story of addiction and the lengths families will go to conceal it while also – whether unintentionally or intentionally – enabling the addict’s continued usage. Jessie, in this particular scenario, is the enabler. However, there are moments when you are left wondering the possible motivation behind her actions and that is a testament to what Ingrid Sophie Schram brings to the character. And, in seeking out victims for Thomas, I know I had to wonder whether or not she derives satisfaction by killing those who are leading lives that she could have otherwise had.
While Jessie won’t leave Thomas behind and has no problem keeping him going, Dwight is buckling. Dwight knows that what they are doing is wrong. And, in placing the pressure on him to do the hard work, he has to live with the memories and consequences of killing these vulnerable people. Patrick Fugit captures this internal struggle well. You can’t help but want the best for him and for him to get away from this whole toxic situation. But the desire to be with family and not to be alone reels him back in.
The vampirism in MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO itself helps illustrate the abject horror of the situation. However, the inherent vampirism Thomas embodies is not itself monstrous in a way we are familiar with. The siblings made a choice in how they are treating his condition. And it’s clear through the unflinching gaze that cinematographer Michael Cuartas fixes onto the siblings who is truly the monster in this scenario. Without the siblings keeping him alive, Thomas has nothing. He’s too weak to survive without them. And, by film’s end, young Thomas (played with beautiful vulnerability and childlikeness by Owen Campbell) knows what has to be done.
MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO is a well-crafted, heartbreaking tale of the lengths a family unit will go to protect the ones they love. And the relatability of the story itself is what will hammer its way into your chest. We know families like this, especially in a time when addictions are rising and help seems almost non-existent. However, the honest, unflinching gaze doesn’t spare this family. They are complicit in their crimes and their behavior. And, as the end credits begin to roll, we are left with a bittersweetness that mirrors life itself.
MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO had its North American premiere at NIGHTSTREAM.