Being a caretaker for a sick loved one is a very mixed bag. On one hand, putting your life on pause for the well-being of someone else is a great inconvenience: you must always be on call in case they need something, and your time is not entirely your own. On the other hand, the dedication and patience that such a relationship reveals is a very beautiful thing and speaks of the bonds of family as something nearly unbreakable. And, on a strange third hand, sometimes this ethereal and powerful bond can indeed be a chain holding us back from who or what we really want to be. It’s like the “inconceivable!” scene from Princess Bride just going back and forth on what these actions really mean.
Jonathan Cuartas My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a film that explores this complicated bond between family members and attempts to find some sort of definitive meaning in the caretaker situation. Is such a situation the ultimate expression of love for a family member, or is it a weight dragging us down? Cuartas takes us by the hand, gently at first, and guides us into a beautiful but melancholic story that ruminates on the themes of resentment, loneliness, anxiety, and a crushing monotony that seemingly has an easy way out-but with a very heavy price to pay. It is a film that uses a somewhat fantastic premise and grounds it in such a way that it becomes almost unnervingly relatable.
My Heart Can’t Beat… is the story of two siblings Dwight and Jessie (played like finely tuned fiddles by Patrick Fugit and Ingrid Sophie Schram) taking care of their sickly younger brother Thomas (another fantastic performance from Owen Campbell). Within minutes it’s revealed that Thomas’ affliction isn’t something routine; while the word “vampire” is never uttered, Thomas’ pallor, aversion to sunlight, weakness between eating, and most importantly the fact that he feeds exclusively on blood harvested from the local houseless population by his siblings, all but scream what he is. The source of said affliction is never explained, and honestly, it’s not important. While Campbell portrays a full fleshed out character and is anything but flat, he is for the most part a human MacGuffin that his siblings are in conflict over. Both have resigned themselves to their station in life. They exist in a horrible cycle of dead-end jobs, love lives that are just rendezvous with sex workers, and every couple of days luring transients off the street so they can be slaughtered like livestock for Thomas. While Jessie has almost entirely shut down emotionally and seems to regard Thomas as just another chore, Dwight still harbors a good amount of affection for his younger brother, occasionally taking him outside at night so he can enjoy the outdoors. However, as things are wont to do, they begin to fall apart, and the fragile routine the family has constructed rapidly collapses into a desperate attempt at keeping Thomas a secret. It’s brutal, it’s harrowing, and most of all its agonizingly sad.
The film’s theme of familial bonds is somewhat perverted from the start. Not only is the concept of “blood being thicker than water” made into something of cruel joke by the “morality under duress” premise of this movie, but the traditional structure of a nuclear family is quietly warped. Jessie and Dwight are the de facto parents in this situation despite the fact it’s suggested they don’t get along at all. Thomas isn’t seen as a son, or a brother even, so much as he is a burden, albeit a much-loved burden but a burden, nonetheless. It’s a family only in that the people are related through blood. Pun definitely intended. The idea of doing anything for family has curdled not just into the horrible things that Dwight and Jessie do to keep Thomas alive, but also through the bitter resentment they have for him. It’s worth pointing out that both of them have somewhat selfish views of the world; sure, they’re both being held back by taking care of their brother, but at least they can go outside during the day and don’t need to consume human blood to live.
The ugliest part of this film is Thomas’ gradual descent into realizing that his life isn’t really a life at all, but is instead little more than the end result of a series of chores his siblings habitually risk their freedom for. They don’t let him go outside except for when Dwight sneaks him out on the back porch, he’s not allowed to have any friends, and Jessie viciously snipes at him when he meekly suggests they could all go out for a night drive somewhere. His lack of interest in continuing to live becomes more and more apparent as the film goes on, and it’s this dawning horror of his that makes his character so achingly vulnerable to behold. His loneliness is a palpable thing and colors every one of his actions and conversations, as his desire for some semblance of normalcy. How far removed from reality he actually is becomes more apparent when a “friend” comes to visit and despite having a very real desire to connect he has no idea how to do so. He doesn’t know how to have a simple conversation and has no grasp of norms. Eventually, the spiral leads to the bottom, and things are as black as can be. I was openly weeping at his situation. It’s very tenderly portrayed by the actors involved and it’s absolutely beautiful to behold, but honestly, it’s emotionally brutal and crushing. Patrick Fugit pulls out all the stops and delivers a Ted Williams hitting it out of Fenway level performance in the final scene, something that honestly left me in awe of what I was seeing.
My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is a tender but brutal examination of how far we’ll go for the ones we love and the obligations we feel towards them. But it’s also about the toll that such bonds can take on us, and what’s truly lost when we sacrifice a part of ourselves for them. It’s about the possibility of starting over, and how we can finally let go of what’s holding us down to finally be ourselves and live our lives for us and not for someone else. There’s a quiet hope present in this movie that one day things will get better, one that refuses to be drowned in the pessimism of Jessie, the increasingly bleak sadness of Thomas, or the literal buckets of blood we see spilled throughout it. And ultimately, I think that hope that things can get better is the message of this movie: that no matter what, no matter how dark things seem and no matter how much tragedy is lobbed at us, one day we may find the peace we long for if we only let ourselves have it.
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