The determination to rebuild messed-up lives lies at the heart of "American Heart," a gritty, well-meaning drama about a father and son on the fringes of society. First fictional feature from Martin Bell has plenty of passion and commitment, but is rather too straightforward and disappointingly resolved to qualify as a total success.
CANNES–The determination to rebuild messed-up lives lies at the heart of “American Heart,” a gritty, well-meaning drama about a father and son on the fringes of society. First fictional feature from Martin Bell, director of the powerful 1984 docu “Streetwise,” has plenty of passion and commitment, but is rather too straightforward and disappointingly resolved to qualify as a total success. Toplined names of Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong, as well as a likely fair share of critical kudos, should give a domestic distrib enough to work with for decent returns on the specialized circuit.A long-in-the-works labor of love for all concerned, pic is rooted in an elemental story about an irresponsible, ex-con father and his teenage son, who is so ignored he must fend for himself on the streets. Around the edges are a host of observations about the sorry state of urban America, and grafted on is a bit of crime melodrama that provides some conventional chase and shoot-’em-up action. Released from prison on a work furlough program, Jack Keely (Jeff Bridges) reunites in Seattle with his 14-year-old son Nick (Edward Furlong), who has been staying healthily with his aunt in the country. Installed in a cheap boarding house, Jack resists the entreaties of his ex-partner, Randy, to resume the robbery game, and manages to find a job washing windows downtown. For his part, the bright, resourceful Nick is discouraged from signing up at school and, given the abuse he sometimes receives from his dad, increasingly hangs around with other dispossessed kids on the block. As hard as he tries, Jack has trouble assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood, prefering to spend time with his g.f. Charlotte (Lucinda Jenney), and life for both father and son is a tough day-to-day proposition. When Jack begins dreaming out loud of moving up to Alaska as a way of starting over again, he doesn’t even include his son in his plans. But in time this becomes a joint project, with both saving for an imminent departure. But fate deals these down-and-outers a rotten hand. Jack loses his job and Nick, to please a cute girl he’s begun to fancy, is drawn into petty crime. But once again, flying bullets become the order of the day, as it all ends in a flurry of gunplay that lends a deflatingly Hollywood-style ending to what has otherwise been an unformulaic work of obvious integrity. Peter Silverman’s screenplay, based on a story by himself, director Bell and associate producer (and photographer and Bell’s wife) Mary Ellen Mark, offers many honest grappling-with-reality scenes, but could have used a dash of reality-heightening poetry to lift the film up from the ordinary. Similarly, Bell’s handling of scenes is very much straight-ahead, tackling issues directly without particular subtlety or nuance. Still, the film packs considerable power, thanks in large measure to the lead performances. Looking as working-class as can be in ponytail and moustache, Bridges pours all his raw energy into this portrait of a limited man who tries to curb his mistakes, but still can’t help letting his unconsidered emotions get the better of him. One can feel Bridges’ commitment to the concerns of story in every scene, befitting his role as one of the producers. Young Furlong, terrific in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” continues to amaze here. He’s one of those actors to whom the camera and viewer are naturally drawn, and he projects intelligence, sensibility and charisma. With heavy dramatic demands placed on him here, he always seems real, never awkward, and effortlessly holds his own with the vet Bridges. One has visions of a remarkable career while watching him in this film. In the end, pic is a shade too prosaic and laborious to excite major enthusiasm, but is also meaty and very respectable as a first film. Tech credits are solid, if unexceptional.