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Tribeca Film Festival 2021 Review - MY HEART CAN’T BEAT UNLESS YOU TELL IT TO

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To review
A pair of siblings turn to murder to feed their vampiric kid brother.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Jonathan Cuartas

Starring: Patrick Fugit, Ingrid Sophie Schram, Owen Campbell

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To poster

A child actor can be something of a vampire, so associated with their youthful work that audiences refuse to allow them to age. Patrick Fugit has been working consistently over the past two decades, yet he's still commonly referred to as "the kid from Almost Famous". No wonder he might be attracted to starring in and producing a movie concerning vampirism – writer/director Jonathan Cuartas's My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To.

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To review

Fugit doesn't play a vampire here, but rather a vampire's brother. The bloodsucker is Thomas (Owen Campbell, who speaking of child actors, looks an awful lot like a member of the Culkin clan), a teenager whose condition means he's forced to remain in his home with the widows blacked out. Looking after Thomas are his older siblings Dwight (Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram). To ensure a steady supply of blood, Dwight entices homeless people into his car, drives them home in the middle of the night and knocks them out cold before draining the plasma from their veins.


At the point we enter the story it's unclear how long Dwight, Sophie and Thomas have been living like this. Many questions are raised in the viewer's mind. Was Thomas born like this or did he succumb to some other vamp's fangs? How aware is Thomas of the human cost of keeping him alive? How are Dwight and Jessie keeping Thomas a secret from the authorities? How are they killing a homeless person every couple of nights without somebody somewhere growing suspicious?

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To review

Your level of frustration at Cuartas's reluctance to answer such niggling queries will likely impact how engaged you can become with his film. Best to dispel any awkward questions from the off, as this is a mood piece, more concerned with generating a doom-laden atmosphere than in spelling out the mechanics of how its protagonists exist (The recent gritty vampire tale Rose: A Love Story is more satisfying in that regard).


Despite their dark secret, Dwight and Jessie live otherwise mundane lives. Watching them eating their dinner on the couch while glued to the TV, I was reminded of similar scenes in John McNaughton's Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. They've become so accustomed to killing that it no longer turns them off their food. Dwight, however, is beginning to have an attack of conscience. He's fallen in love with a hooker who operates out of a local motel, and fears that Jessie may insist on making the woman their latest victim. He's also beginning to realise that his domineering sister may not have their brother's best interests at heart. Is keeping Thomas alive in this half-existence really what's best, especially given the human cost? In Dwight and Jessie we see something of a traditional father/mother dynamic where Thomas is concerned. Dwight wants to cut Thomas some slack and be seen as his friend while Jessie has a steely determination to keep her kid brother alive at any cost, even if it's barely an existence.

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To review

Cuartas does such an effective job of embedding us in the nocturnal world of this family that when we finally see daylight – as Thomas tries to throw a paper airplane message to a passing group of teens – it's as striking as that moment at the end of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre when Marilyn Burns jumps out a window into an unexpected morning. Cuartas gets us into the conflicting psyches of Dwight and Jessie, but it's somewhat frustrating that the film treats Thomas in a similar fashion to his older siblings – he may be the centre of the story but he's largely sidelined. But fans of kitchen sick vampire movies like Martin, The Addiction and the aforementioned Rose: A Love Story will find much to satisfy in this story of sangre slurping in the suburbs.

My Heart Can't Beat Unless You Tell It To plays at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 12th. It will be released in US cinemas and Vod on June 25th and on UK Digital June 28th.



2021 movie reviews