My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To concerns three siblings; Dwight (Patrick Fugit) and Jessie (Ingrid Sophie Schram) are relatively close in age, and they are taking care of their younger brother, Thomas (Owen Campbell). The teenager (?) is very sick, and this illness is killing him. In an effort to buy him as much time as the older two go out every few days and choose someone to die. They drain their victim of blood and feed it to Thomas.
But, this is not a cure; it just allows Thomas to borrow some more time. The more empathetic Dwight begins to come to terms with the realization that despite their best efforts, he and Jessie ultimately will not be able to save him. It does not help that the stern sister sets such strict rules on Thomas that he is not really living anyway. He is forced to sleep all day, and be awake at night, and he is not allowed to have friends. Dwight’s conscience gets the best of him one day, allowing a would-be victim to live. The consequences of this echo far beyond what he could have imagined. Is there hope for Thomas? Why can’t he go out during the day?
“…Dwight and Jessie…drain their victim of blood and feed it to Thomas.”
Before one goes and gets the wrong idea, no, writer-director Jonathan Cuartas’s screenplay does not involve the police whatsoever. This is not some procedural thriller with a mounting body count. Cuartas is much more interested in an intimate journey, specifically the personal changes Dwight’s inner conflict brings about and its fallout. In that regard, he is mostly successful, though not entirely.
The biggest flaw of My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To is its utter lack of explanation for anything. It is one thing not to spoon-feed the audience everything and allow them to fill in the gaps and draw their own conclusions based on what they just experienced. It is something else entirely to leave the viewer confused and unsure of vital specifics to understand both the characters and story better. In this specific case, how did Dwight and Jessie realize that feeding Thomas blood would work? Did they try doctors and more conventional means only to reach a dead-end? How old were they when their parents died? Were the parents Thomas’s first sacrifices?