Daria Gamliel for Cinetalk.net

Could it be that the isolation of 2020 has brought about more films than usual about isolation, loneliness and the need to bond? If so, what is the link with blood? The following two films touch on the vampiristic nature of humans. Each filmmaker has tapped into this subject matter in their own way, and I don’t intend for them to be lumped in as one film. Each is distinct and both merit a watch.

Jonathan Cuartas’s My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell it To smells of musty roadside motels and memories from faded family photo albums. In a self-contained microcosm where the family Christmas tree is always lit, live three siblings. Thomas appears to have a life-threatening illness, though the nature of it is never revealed. His brother and sister live their lives only to upkeep his.

The parent-like siblings go to great lengths to keep blood flowing through Thomas’s veins. Much like teenagers who don’t grasp the meaning of Mom working two jobs or of Dad never being free to play games, Thomas doesn’t understand why his brother can’t hang out. He doesn’t know how hard it is for his sister to put nutrients on his plate. He wants to go outside, see daylight, and make friends. As family ties start to come loose, Thomas’s demands become harder and harder to ignore.

The oft-expressionless sister’s attempt at dominating the household, coupled with the dim, slightly retro interiors deliver an unsettling mood. Though the premise relies on bloody tactics, Cuartas never dips into gore. The visceral is only shown from round the corner, outside a door frame, or behind the glare of street lamps, As an observer, the audience needs to forget that they have no history, no explanation of when or why this all began, or exactly what is wrong with Thomas (if anything). This sort of mystery de-emphasizes the importance of the illness, in order to focus more on the sibling bonds. In the end, the question is more about whether blood really is thicker than water.

Brendan believes he and his girlfriend Emily are going on a lovey-dovey excursion to a winter cabin. But Emily has also invited her new-ish BFF, Rowan. The scenario is rife for some third-wheel tensions. However, Amelia Moses’s Bleed with Me toys with the viewer’s interpretation of who exactly is the third wheel. The slightly creepy setting builds mood while Moses works on character development. As the plot advances, the notion of predator and prey also becomes apparent. But which is which? Each character is set up to be presumed a little…unusual; even unstable. References to self-harm, obsession, and even a tiny layer of lesbian affection become intertwined with pills, mental illness, booze, and what may appear to be sleepwalking. With very few props or action, Moses and her cast have created a tense and insular setting.

Frightened and confused, Rowan begins to wonder if she is the victim of nocturnal blood extraction. If she was at first characterized as unstable, the plot then points toward Emily being the unstable one. A codependency seems to exist that leaves a lot to the imagination. No precise explanation is given for the bizarre series of events. This leaves it up to the viewer’s interpretation. Hallucination? Schism? Reality. The triad of possibilities can be linked to each of the characters. But deciding who wears which label is what makes Bleed with Me gripping and engaging.

Tonight is the last night of Pendance, but the last film begins at 10 PM – still time to catch a few!