In writer-director Shana Feste’s muddled midnight movie Run Sweetheart Run, life is a string of misogynistic slights for Cherie (Ella Balinska), a young single mother trying to make it at a male-dominated, female-assisted Los Angeles law firm. From unwanted groping on the bus to inappropriate behaviour at work, the men surrounding her are as blunt as they are unashamed of it, a familiar-to-many daily grind she’s accustomed to yet aggrieved with.
When a scheduling mishap leaves her boss double-booked for the night, Cherie is asked to take his place meeting a client, scrambling together a last-minute babysitter and a last-minute outfit. Cherie is pleasantly surprised when she meets Ethan (Borgen and Game of Thrones alum Pilou Asbæk), who is handsome and friendly, a balm after yet another day of shitty men, but as their date goes from restaurant back to his extravagant home, things go from very nice to very, very nasty.
Feste, a film-maker typically associated with earnest non-genre fare like the Gwyneth Paltrow music drama Country Strong and teen romance Endless Love, has described Run Sweetheart Run as “Get Out for women”, a refreshingly honest confession that her film is very much part of the, at times, exhausting increase in so-called social horrors. It’s a hugely difficult subgenre to get even half-right, something that’s been underestimated by many since Jordan Peele’s gamechanger, and Feste’s admirably ambitious attempt settles at about a quarter, her film working best in the early stages when the emphasis is more on social and less on horror.
Even before the film slides into gory, full-tilt mayhem, the world is already a scary place for Cherie, who, like many women, is made cruelly, almost constantly, aware that male danger lurks around the corner. It’s an unsubtle escalation but effective nonetheless because, well, sexism so often is unsubtle and Balinska, a Charlie’s Angels survivor, is a warm and empathic actor who doesn’t struggle to get, and then keep, us firmly in her corner. When the micro-aggressions turn macro, Feste makes a decision to censor the violence inflicted on her heroine, a laudable course correct to the many, many films that excitedly indulge in women in pain, but one that involves a fourth wall removal that clangs. So too does Feste’s repeated use of on-screen text that tells her lead to “RUN!” whenever things get dangerous. These big swing B-movie flourishes feel that much more discordant given how so much of the film around it is made without the same sense of flash.
As the running begins, the script, co-written by playwright Keith Josef Adkins and newcomer Kellee Terrell, starts to, ahem, run out of steam, devolving into extreme and extremely divisive silliness, in ways that can be charmingly goofy but most often not. The difficulty of balancing a genre film “that’s really about _____” is that when you’re trying to say something about a real tangible issue using an absurdist device, the gap between your ability to master the two, between familiar fact and fantastical fiction can end up making or breaking your point. In Get Out, Peele proved himself to be as adept at one as he was at the other, landing the far-out nuttiness of the reveal after such careful groundwork. I was also reminded of how ferocious and focused Mimi Cave’s similarly themed thriller Fresh was earlier this year, a film that also turned the horrors of dating and everyday sexism into actual horror, confidently gliding from coercive to cannibalistic behaviour. But here, the switch to gonzo hokeyness is far harder to stomach or even understand, edging the film away from a thriller-horror and further into comic book fantasy.
By the time a vampy Shohreh Aghdashloo has turned up as an age-old mystical being using menstrual blood to save the souls of targeted women while telling us that the Adam and Eve story is in fact a lie, it’s hard to know what to think or how we even got here. It’s difficult to fault a film for being over-ambitious given the low-effort nature of so many genre films but the sheer, two-joints-in bizarreness of Run Sweetheart Run needed a surer hand to guide us through. As it is, that run to the finish line ends up feeling like a crawl.
Run Sweetheart Run is available on Amazon Prime on 28 October