"I knew from the moment I saw you where you were going," a creepy rideshare driver says as he pulls up to a mansion in Los Angeles and drops Cherie (Ella Balinska) off. We don’t know what’s happened at the mansion, or why he seems almost happy to be dropping a woman off there, but we know it must not be good. Cherie is here for a date with Ethan (Pilou Asbæk), a wealthy bachelor her boss set her up with. After a few pleasantries and a drink in the giant house filled with what looks like ancient Egyptian imagery, Ethan breaks the fourth wall, looks into the camera, and signals with a smirk for it to wait outside. We remain outside for almost a minute, hearing only the screams from inside. After the door opens again, all hell breaks loose.
Shana Feste's Run Sweetheart Run gives the survive-the-night horror film a new twist, but there's also a thinly-veiled metaphor at the center of a shallow plot. Before being forced to run through the streets of LA alone at night, Cherie is looking forward to her first date in a while. Being a single working mother still trying to distance herself from her volatile ex, she needed some time off for herself, especially since her boss set her up with a wealthy bachelor she hopes will be a nice guy. Oh, and to make matters worse, Cherie is on her period, and her toddler flushed her last tampon down the toilet right before she headed out on her date.
By the time she leaves Ethan's mansion, she's bloodied, tired, and scared, but she'll find little comfort on the streets, as the moment she calls the cops, they arrest her for public intoxication. Somehow, Ethan convinces the cops to release her, but not before intimidating her one last time with a threatening proposition: If she can survive until dawn, she's free to go.
Feste's first foray into horror (she is known for indie dramas like last year's Boundaries) is a highly entertaining and tense game of cat-and-mouse that quickly reveals its cat to be of the supernatural variety. It helps that Balinska gives a go-for-broke performance that has her switching between broken and fierce in a heartbeat, making for a protagonist you can easily root for. Asbæk, on the other hand, is having the time of his life playing the charismatic a-hole villain. Fans of Game of Thrones know that no matter how much you hate him, Asbæk will at least give you a very entertaining performance to watch, though this time he's something more sinister more than simply an entitled rich playboy.
Though some viewers may take issue with the way the film's mythology and message intertwine, Asbæk completely sells his villainous ways, and the film has fun playing with the idea that evil doesn't just exist, but is enabled by those who sit idly by and do nothing. Indeed, whatever Ethan is, he and his monstrous deeds seem to be known by pretty much everyone in the film, from the Uber driver, to the cops, to random people on the streets who recognize him and the type of girl he goes after. Yet they keep enabling him through their inaction.
That message may lack subtlety, but Feste gives a deeply intimate portrayal of womanhood and the entrenched systems that often silence women, particularly women of color. There are even some similarities with an unlikely franchise: John Wick. We see a larger universe being slowly unfolded, with its own safe house version of the Continental, and even a dog companion who helps save the day. The safe house part is important, as no matter how alone Cherie seems, Run Sweetheart Run is also a celebration and homage to women who stand together and help each other in the face of adversity.
Even if the last act goes to some very predictable, in-your-face moments, the journey there is bolstered by some unexpected twists and two wonderful performances. Sure, the message is heavy-handed, but if it's a positive one, and the movie's entertaining, then it's a journey worth embarking on.