#WhoRunsTheBots Film Review: Heartthrob

#WhoRunsTheBots Film Review: Heartthrob


This is a question I've been asking myself for a year, since my battle against online targeted harassment started, after I spoke out in January 2017 about the man who raped me. I did it due to blackmail and threats to protect myself and break his power over me and to warn others. Soon, I found out, the companies and systems put in place to help me protect myself online, didn't really protect me at all.

Due to it, I started a project called #whorunsthebots. Soon, the project will be revealed. For this project I'm researching social media, digital systems, technology, and online violence.

Part of the research consists of reviewing films concerning privacy and anonymity to get more ideas about what kind of futuristic madness we could expect regarding (online) violence.

Heartthrob is the second film I’m reviewing for the project, I will review it from an activistic point of view, as well as a film lover's point of view.


Heartthrob is a romance thriller about how toxic relationships cause damage to a whole community. It’s a story about how two people get lost inside a romance, leading to multiple deaths and a town torn apart.

Keir Gilchrist (Atypical) plays Henry, who gets close to Sam, played by Aubrey Peeples (Nashville).

Keil Gilchrist and Aubrey Peeples play Henry and Sam, a young couple in love.

Spoiler warning

Henry and Sam have both graduated and are getting ready for university. Henry is accepted at MIT, a prestigious school, while Sam is going to community college. They’ve known each other from high school. After a quarrel on the beach, Sam goes to work. After work, she finds out her car stopped working. While walking home, Henry finds her on the street and stops to apologise and bring her home.

The relationship quickly gets very intense, to the point where Henry soon admits to Sam her car didn’t work the day he brought her home because he sabotaged it so he had a chance to speak to her and apologise. Sam misses the first red flag in the relationship and forgives him. She seems to explain his actions and confession as romantic and a sign of trust between them, rather than manipulative and calculated.

Everyone around Sam seems very happy she’s dating Henry because he’s smart, polite, and even introduced himself to her mother. A friend tells Sam how romantic the relationship is because after summer Henry has to move to college, making it a tragic love-story.

The only person who’s not happy with the relationship is Henry’s mother, because she’s afraid Sam might influence Henry’s decisions about college. Tension between Henry and his mother build up due to this, leaving Sam torn between her love for Henry, and her wishes for him to have a good future.

Henry and his mother in a fight.

Overtime Henry becomes more possessive of Sam, which Sam initially explains as him being protective. She doesn’t know Sam has sabotaged her phone so he can stalk her. When Henry finds out other guys have slept with Sam and disrespected her, he finds out the location of these guys through tapping a phone-call Sam is having with one of her friends. Sam is invited to a beach party but isn’t in the mood. Instead, Henry visit the party to confront an ex of Sam.

The next day Sam finds out her ex is dead and that the police consider it a murder-case. Henry comforts her and tries to pull her through it. When Sam and Henry are at a beach mourning-party for her ex, Henry gets into a fight and accidentally punches Sam.

Sam tries to set boundaries with Henry at this point and isn’t willing to forgive him just like that. Henry tells Sam he feels so bad about what happened he wants to kill himself, a comment that really upsets Sam given her father died by suicide when she was 15. She talks to her friend about this and wants Henry to apologise. Henry, who has overheard this conversation because he’s stalking her phone, does everything Sam describes she wishes he would do. As a result, she takes him back.

Henry looks at the bruise he left on Sam’s chest.

Henry decides to drop out of college to be with his girlfriend and starts to threaten his own mother when she tries to get in-between him and Sam. Eventually the relationship between the young lovers escalates to a point where another friend of Sam gets murdered. Henry takes his own mother hostage and he eventually dies by suicide in an attempt to prove his love for Sam because he knows she can’t be with him anymore.

Sam finds out her now dead boyfriend murdered her friends. The pattern within the murders seems that they all disrespected Henry and Sam’s relationship in some way. Looking back, Sam realises Henry confessed her love for her multiple times, but she never responded. After Sam receives his journal after his death, she realises she loves him regardless of the murders he committed. She’s upset she never told him and writes letters to him, describing how he was the only person who truly saw her, based on his journal. The sad ending of the movie shows how Sam is now damaged due to everything Henry did, and isn’t able anymore to differentiate love from manipulation.

Visually, the movie is very striking due to the neon lights that are used throughout it. Fire and candle-light are regularly used as well to make a scene intimate and at times dangerous; fire being the reminder of the danger that lurks ahead.

heartthrob review.jpg

Something that people might remark on Heartthrob is that the relationship between Sam and Henry develops rather quickly, making it unbelievable. I personally disagree with this, based on my own experience with toxic relationships, and stories from others who’ve been caught up in them.

The key element Heartthrob shows about toxic relationships is in fact that they can explode quickly due to the energy two people focus on each other. It shows how infatuation makes blind: a victim might not see red flags, due to the devotion of the abuser and approval of others concerning the relationship. The victim might mistake signs of manipulation and jealousy as signs of love.

Even when people are dying, Sam doesn’t suspect her boyfriend might be behind the attacks, because she’s blinded by love. Heartthrob shows how difficult it is to point the finger to someone you love, due to love.

A nice quote from Sam’s mother in the movie about toxic relationships, when she compares Henry to Sam’s father:

When someone like that focuses all their energy on you, it can be electric. But there’s a dark side to that intensity.
— Heartthrob

Henry stalking Sam with his phone.

Heartthrob shows us that our privacy can be violated even by those we trust. It warns us how technology is abused and indirectly causes deaths, due to our devices being used as tools to spy on us and target secondary victims.

In an article from The New York Times from June 2018, journalist Nelle Bowles investigated how smart tech is used by abusers to psychologically abuse victims.

In more than 30 interviews with The New York Times, domestic abuse victims, their lawyers, shelter workers and emergency responders described how the technology was becoming an alarming new tool. Abusers — using apps on their smartphones, which are connected to the internet-enabled devices — would remotely control everyday objects in the home, sometimes to watch and listen, other times to scare or show power. Even after a partner had left the home, the devices often stayed and continued to be used to intimidate and confuse.
— Thermostats, Locks and Lights: Digital Tools of Domestic Abuse, New York Times, 2018.

The problem with abuse through technology is that it’s difficult to prove. Tech is getting smarter, and so are getting abusers. Tech companies worldwide are constantly competing to release the latest and smartest tech that will make our lives better, sometimes resulting in unsafe tech being released to the public that can be abused.

When striving for a world where smart-tech rules, it’s important to consider the safety measures that need to be taken, to protect users of such tech. Heartthrob is a good movie to show teens of the dangers of tech and toxic relationships.

You can find Heartthrob on Netflix.

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