If there’s a net positive to vampires becoming such a ubiquitous part of the pop culture landscape, it’s that there’s now little need to go over the dull details of what these bloodthirsty creatures can and cannot do. So when, early on in the surprisingly tender horror drama My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To, Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) and Dwight (Patrick Fugit) help their sickly brother Thomas (Owen Campbell) hungrily slurp down a bowl of human blood, the lack of exposition or prologue doesn’t feel conspicuous.
Writer/director Jonathan Cuartas instead fleshes out Thomas’ vampirism through background details. The cardboard covering his bedroom window. The box of personal items taken from his victims tucked under his bed. His pallid complexion and rail-thin body. Were it not for those signifiers, and the copious amounts of blood spilled for his benefit, Thomas could be Colin in Marc Munden’s The Secret Garden (2020) or Maddy in Stella Meghie’s Everything, Everything (2017)–a supposedly sickly child hidden away from natural light and fresh air for the sake of their “health”.
Whether or not Thomas’ plight is meant to protect him from the world or vice versa, the isolation starts to wear on both him and Dwight. Thomas, in a particularly heartbreaking scene, begs Jessie to let him try and befriend the kids he hears playing outside his window. Dwight may have it worse. He can seek out relationships beyond his blood relatives, but the only person he dares interact with is the sex worker to whom he makes regular visits. The routine of seeking out and murdering homeless men to feed his brother has become burdensome.
Cuartas and his cinematographer brother Michael give My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To a claustrophobic air. Though a world exists beyond the home of this strange family, it isn’t onscreen much. When Dwight or Jessie venture outside, the camera closes in on them. Every time the film returns to the family house, the frame gets tighter and tighter, as if the wood-paneled walls were slowly squeezing everyone within.
Amid the earth tones and quiet hum of the film, it’s up to the actors to provide color to the story. Fugit, best known as the wide-eyed teen rock journalist in Cameron Crowe‘s Almost Famous (2000), puts Dwight in a cloud through his stooped shoulders and almost mumbled speech. The character spends the film slowly emerging from this fog. At first, it’s a willing evolution as Dwight opens up to the sex worker that he has become emotionally attached to. But it becomes a forceable change when one of his potential murder victims fights back and escapes.
Fugit responds to this arc by slowly unfolding his body from under the yoke of his bizarre home life. Campbell has a slightly tougher go of it. Owing to Thomas’ frail frame and odd condition, the actor barely moves throughout the film. Instead, he lets his voice and eyes modulate and shift to evoke mischievousness and sheer desperation.
Much like her character, Schram remains controlled yet coiled throughout. Jessie has taken on the care and education of her younger brother with a grim determination. After watching Dwight fend off and kill a drifter in their kitchen, she firmly admonishes her brother not to waste any of the blood. Through her stiff-backed demeanor and clipped delivery, Schram becomes the embodiment of every person that has set aside their needs and wants to care for a terminally ill family member.
There’s no real relief to be found within My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To. There’s nothing and no one to really root for, even amid the film’s supposedly triumphal final scenes. The family’s fate was sealed from the jump. It’s only Cuartas’ sure-handed direction and the fine work of the main trio of actors that keeps the story’s conclusion from feeling far less inevitable.