The line between homage and flat repetition can be thin. The Violent Heart, writer and director Kerem Sanga’s third feature (premiering in competition at France’s Deauville Film Festival), falls on the dull side of the dividing line. That result is a shame, because there is plenty to admire technically in his drama about Daniel, a young Black man in Tennessee trying to pull his life together, and Cassie, a white high-school senior. But its substance is a mashup of ill-fitting parts, indebted to both Romeo and Juliet and Douglas Sirk.
Daniel’s character is far more intriguing than his unlikely romance with Cassie. As the film begins, we briefly see him as a boy who trails his older sister one night when she sneaks out of the house with a suitcase. From a distance he sees her shot and killed by a man he can’t view clearly or identify.
Astute direction and acting wasted on a trite story.
The film picks up 15 years later, with Jovan Adepo as Daniel, a sober, quiet 24-year-old working as a mechanic, living with his mother (Mary J. Blige, solid as always in a small role) and adolescent brother (the impressive Jahi Di’Allo Winston in a stirring performance). His father is a Marine serving in Afghanistan, and Daniel is trying to enlist. Sanga is exceptionally good at dropping information into the story deftly. We learn only later that Daniel has been in prison for injuring a fellow student during a fight in high school, and needs a special waiver to join the Marines. Adepo is a strong presence who holds the screen beautifully and gives Daniel all the gravity you’d expect from a young man trying hard to look forward after a traumatic past.
Exploring Daniel’s trajectory during those missing 15 years might have been fascinating, but that is not the film Sanga chose to make. The Violent Heart never delves into trauma and its aftermath as it at first promises to. Instead, Sanga brings in 18-year-old Cassie (Grace Van Patten), a character so thinly drawn she hardly exists except as a plot device. She suspects that her father, who teaches English at her high school, is having an affair. Lukas Haas plays the role as just creepy enough. Finding her Dad locked in a classroom with another teacher who is buttoning up her shirt offers Cassie an obvious clue to his duplicity. Nothing about her character or plot is believable, and there isn’t much Van Patten can do beyond making her a pretty and lively hologram.
Cassie meets Daniel at the garage, pursues him, and they begin a relationship. We are meant to see her as mature and understanding, which would give Daniel a reason to trust and confide in her about his past. But her behavior is guileless, and as the story goes on, we are less and less convinced that these two would have a thing to say to each other. There is not even enough sexual chemistry between them to explain things.
The film is sharply edited by Joshua Raymond Lee, building on the strength of Sanga’s focused screenplay. Each scene has a reason for existing, and there is not a bit of excess. Sanga, whose films include the 2016 Sundance entry First Girl I Loved, has a straightforward directing style that moves smoothly enough. But all those honed scenes don’t amount to anything. The film remains a grab bag of undeveloped ideas: There is one throwaway line about race and another about Daniel and Cassie’s age difference, a bit of keeping your nose clean after prison, a smidgen of teenaged rebellion, a dash of dark family secrets and, don’t forget, a long-unsolved murder.
Then, out of nowhere, about three-quarters of the way through, melodrama comes crashing into this staid story. The change plays as if a truck had plowed through a plate-glass storefront — it’s dramatic, but it’s not good. There is one twist that gives new meaning to the word coincidence and is even less probable than Cassie and Daniel’s relationship, and then a couple of extra murders on top of that. Sanga has said in interviews that he wanted to go for a full-blown melodramatic experience, but he never puts his own touch or spin on it, so the effect is not Sirkian. It is simply preposterous.
Production Company: 21 Laps
Cast: Jovan Adepo, Grace Van Patten, Lukas Haas, Mary J. Blige, Jahi Di’Allo Winston
Director and Writer: Kerem Sanga
Producers: Edward McDonnell, Shawn Levy, Dan Cohen, Matthew Plouffe, Tobey Maguire, P. Jennifer Dana, Mark Roberts
Cinematography: Ricardo Diaz
Production Design: Diana Rice
Costume Design: Samantha Roe
Editor: Joshua Raymond Lee
Music: John Swihart
Casting: Rich Delia
Sales: Endeavor Content
Venue: Deauville Film Festival (Competition)