A man with Down Syndrome adjusts to group-home life in this U.K. indie.
Only the plot strand signaled by the title rings false in “My Feral Heart,” an otherwise very pleasing and credible tale of a man with Down Syndrome suddenly forced into a group care facility when his elderly mother dies. This first feature from helmer Jane Gull and scenarist Duncan Paveling is an enterprising indie that would’ve benefited from a slightly longer runtime, as in its current form, the narrative comes to a somewhat abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion. But there’s a lot to like in this U.K. drama, which should appeal to fest programmers and niche (particularly broadcast) home-format buyers.
Luke (Steven Brandon) is a sunny bloke roughly in his thirties who lives with his widowed mother (Eileen Pollock). Though she’s sometimes impatient and snappish, they have a good relationship, and at this point he’s gone from being cared for to being her sole caregiver, basically running the household by himself. Yet when she passes away in her sleep one night, the authorities ignore all evidence that Luke can (and does) live independently, claiming there’s no option but for him to move into a state-funded “home” some distance from his lifelong one.
He’s furious and withdrawn at first, unhappy to be tossed in among strangers, many so disabled they can’t speak or go to the bathroom without assistance. Accustomed to much more freedom (and doing his own chores), he’s frustrated by the restrictions placed on him, which initially preclude his even going outside unchaperoned. Gradually, however, he warms to the attentions — as who wouldn’t — of outgoing young staffer Eve (Shana Swash), who refuses to take offense at his sullen moods and gradually wears down his resistance. He also makes friends with Pete (Will Rastall), who’s doing community-service labor repairing the institution’s decrepit greenhouse, in which effort bored, idle Luke eagerly offers help.
Exploring the area, a setting more rural than he’s accustomed to, Luke one day discovers an unconscious young woman (Pixie Le Knot, whom publicity materials note is “one of the most flexible contortionists in the U.K.”) lying in a field. He takes her to an abandoned barn he’s found and nurses her back to health like a wounded wild animal, smuggling in clothes and food during odd breaks from the “home.” We never do find out just what this nameless, apparently feral girl’s backstory is, though ingratiating ne’er-do-well Pete’s character is nicely shaded in by the revelation of his problematic home life with an upper-class father who blames him for a preferred sibling’s death. That imbalance grows from oddity to serious issue when the film’s climax hinges on the discovery of the feral girl during a local fox hunt, wrapping things up all too hastily with closing credits arriving just past the 75-minute mark.
It’s not the performers’ fault that this plot thread alone comes off as a melodramatic gimmick, while everything else in “My Feral Heart” is admirably nuanced and grounded. Fact is, there’s quite enough going on amidst the three winningly played lead characters to render this underdeveloped additional strand superfluous. Brandon, found via mixed special-needs/able-bodied Mushroom Theatre Co. and apparently a high-functioning person with Down Syndrome like his character, imbues Luke with an assertive personality and prankish humor that never feel contrived, or condescended to. “Eastenders” veteran Swash and newcomer Rastall are first-rate in support.
The unfussy assembly eschews frills in favor of a brisk naturalism, its only notable decoration being noted expat composer Barrington Pheloung’s plaintive chamber score.