[Tribeca Review] Gloomy ‘My Heart Can’t Beat Unless You Tell It To’ Contemplates Family Bonds

One of the many benefits of genre storytelling is the way horror evokes extreme empathy. Watching a character confront adversity in horror offers a uniquely communal experience that builds understanding that bridges all walks of life. Shapeless explores the all-consuming addictive behaviors of an eating disorder, using psychological body horror to convey the toll it can exact. While it favors drama over horror, this intimate character study delivers a haunting, straightforward downward spiral with no definitive answers.

Kelly Murtagh co-wrote the script with Bryce Parsons-Twesten and stars as Ivy, an aspiring singer that spends her nights in lounges and dive bars hoping to catapult it into significant success. By day, she works at a dry-cleaning service, earning meager paychecks and staying late to borrow attire for her evening gigs. Ivy doesn’t have much of a social life outside her two jobs, which means she spends most of her time alone with her insecurities and a debilitating eating disorder. The more control it assumes over her, the more it manifests in monstrous ways. Ivy will have to face her addiction head-on or risk becoming something she no longer recognizes.

Samantha Aldana makes her feature directorial debut here, delivering a confident and artistically rendered portrait of a woman’s downward spiral. However, it’s a slow, methodical descent. The hazy soft-lit glow of dark, seedy bars or sparsely populated lounges lends an almost dreamlike quality, a detached reality for Ivy that serves as an escape from her harsh reality controlled by her eating disorder. Like a silent, unseen stalker, her illness follows her everywhere, leaving her perpetually on edge and paranoid. Mundane tasks like grocery shopping or choosing a snack induce anxiety. Trying to keep her impulses at bay creates horrific repercussions, often through grotesque body dysmorphia run through a genre filter.

Shapeless primarily focuses on heightened drama, only dabbling with horror through its unsettling score, sound design, and moments of body horror. It’s a singular, interior view of a woman deep in the throes of addictive behaviors that’s growing increasingly detrimental to her physical and mental health. Aldana uses drama to ground Ivy’s journey in reality to ensure it maintains authenticity and emotional heft.

That means that it’s more of an experience than a traditional narrative, devoid of a conventional beginning, middle, and end. Murtagh and Aldana get up close and personal with the various ways Ivy’s battle affects her but eschew any tidy conclusion. It’s a logical and stylistic choice that matches the ongoing nature of combating eating disorders, but its gentle tapering is still jarring nonetheless. It likely doesn’t help that Murtagh is too effective in her role; Ivy’s identity is so intrinsically intertwined with her disorder from the outset, it’s more a matter of progression.

Aldana uses horror to cast a spotlight on the invasive, all-consuming nature of an eating disorder. Yet, she plays it too safe with the genre elements, preferring to let the drama raise the emotional stakes. Shapeless is visually engaging, and Murtagh keeps you invested, but it’s so hyper-focused on Ivy’s descent that everything else feels superfluous and superficial. It’s a relatively successful depiction of a woman slowly losing control against a disease, but it’s a languidly paced and straightforward battle without much depth.

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