Coming of age and coming out are awkward, anguished and wildly unpredictable in Morgan Jon Fox’s poignant video tone poem “Blue Citrus Hearts.” As the characters drift in and out of schoolrooms and relationships, color and focus are manipulated — sometimes sharp, clear, sometimes one color, hard to decipher — to mirror the hero’s confusions and mood-swings. Thus, Fox and his shoestring Memphis film cooperative succeed in capturing the intensity of teen angst where many Hollywood films fail. Already an underground hit on gay fest circuit and out on video and DVD, “Hearts'” non-gender-specific appeal should easily graduate into cable sales.
Sam (Joshua Peter Laurenzi) comes from a typically dysfunctional nuclear family, where shaved-head dad’s (Mark Pergolizzi) concept of parenting consists of yelling and belittlement, mom (Le Ann Roberts) never wants to rock the boat, and everyone around the dinner table gets off on dissing Sam. The only one to understand him is his grandmother, who slips him a card from a gay bar and implies that his father previously repressed his humanity in an effort to repress his homosexuality.
Sam has a girlfriend, Arielle (Alex Booth), but her appeal has started to wilt in the heat of his attraction to best friend Julien (Paul Foster), who lives in rare harmony with his cool single-parent mom (a highly personable Emily Fry).
Fox and his actors imbue the kids’ largely improvised scenes with amazing pathos, the performers’ nervous gestures and silences communicating as much as their conversations. Wandering around Memphis coffee houses or trading confidences in secret hideouts Sam and Julien bond as friends and try to find their psychological bearings, while Arielle tries to figure out what has gone wrong between Sam and her.
“Hearts” was partly filmed at White Station High School with actual students and teachers. Pic’s lanky young non-pro actors fit right in. Pic conveys the sense of what it is like to go to school with the eerie precision of a documentary — students and staff alike behave with an off-handedness that careful reconstruction could never achieve.
Plus, Fox subscribes to no romantic ideas of essential homosexual “difference.” His hero’s gayness does not alienate him from his friends and send him spinning off from everyone who wants to get close to him: His confusion does.
Throughout the film, fragments of handwritten poetry appear in white on the screen (presumably from the journal Sam is always scribbling in) and, in one key scene, Sam hands Julien his writing as a declaration of love. But “Heart” eschews any lightbulb-over-the-head simplicity whereby the “discovery” of sexual identity resolves the problems of adolescence, or where queerness somehow bestows personality.
The hand-held camera often comes a little too close for comfort in the experimental lensing by Fox and Suzie Cyanide. Subtle score by indie rock band Loggia never overwhelms.