Sometimes, when a movie ends with a twist, it makes you want to rush back and rewatch the entire story to see how the filmmakers pulled it off. Where did they hide the clues? What new insights does a closer look reveal? In other cases, it’s best just to accept the surprise and move on, salvaging what you can of the experience.
In “The Violent Heart,” writer-director Kerem Sanga (“The Young Kieslowski”) wants us to believe that we’re watching a sensitive post-racial romance about a goody-goody white Tennessee teen who challenges her family’s unexamined biases by hooking up with the local bad boy — who is Black and six years her senior — when in fact, the movie pulls a fast one in the final act. To be fair, Sanga introduces the twist early on, depicting fragments of the traumatic event that scars and shapes 9-year-old Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter) for the rest of his life: He adores his older sister Wendy (Rayven Symone Ferrell), who sneaks out one night with a stranger. Daniel follows on his scooter, hidden from view as the guy she’s with shoots her and runs off.
That’s a heck of a thing for a kid to witness, and it’s fascinating to catch up with the character 15 years later (played now by Jovan Adepo of “Watchmen” and “The Stand”). By this point, Daniel has internalized his fury, which has gotten him in trouble before. He has a short fuse and a felony record, but wants to make amends by enlisting in the Marines. And then he meets Cassie (Grace Van Patten), a high school student who must have been 3 at the time of the crime.
Daniel envies Cassie’s naiveté and self-confidence, but mostly he appreciates the way she sees him, as something other than a lost cause. She believes in herself, and she believes in him too, and for the first time in ages, Daniel starts to unclench. Before he met Cassie, he was a curled fist, ready to smash at the unfair world around him, to take his revenge, perhaps. Adepo brings dimension to a reductive stereotype, that of the Angry Black Man, challenging the very essence of prejudice — assumptions formed on partial information.
Cassie is a star student, but bored by the final stretch of high school. Her father (Lukas Haas) teaches senior English, and she’s already been accepted to her university of choice when she meets Daniel. We can’t possibly know where their connection will take the two, and that open-endedness is what’s best about the movie. Apart from a slightly older friend in Nashville (whom we never meet), Cassie isn’t particularly close to anyone her age. She’s like one of the “Booksmart” characters, minus an equally precocious bestie to amplify her wit. And so Cassie dotes on her dad instead, until one afternoon, she walks in on him having an unscheduled after-class meeting with a woman who isn’t her mom.
This is her shock, which is nothing compared with what Daniel witnessed all those years ago. Still, she starts to act out, skipping school and responding to the roar of Daniel’s motorcycle like a straitlaced Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Per the press notes, Sanga had that movie in mind when justifying the overripe parental showdowns still in store — the contrivances required to pull off an ending that drives a stake through the peaceful yet passionate heart of what’s come before.
Early on, Sanga does a fine job of depicting the tentative first steps of Daniel and Cassie’s relationship in a way that doesn’t feel identical to so many other young love stories. Adepo and Van Patten represent a couple we don’t often see on-screen. Their scenes unfold patiently, allowing the two to discover each other in DP Ricardo Diaz’s spacious widescreen frames. There’s possibility in their chemistry, but the movie has decided their fate before it’s begun. “The Violent Heart” is rigged to mislead.
It seems to be making a powerful statement about second chances and how some people get them (like a white straight-A student) and some people don’t (a promising Black youth derailed by an adolescent mistake). Straddling that line is Daniel’s kid brother (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), slightly younger than Cassie, though this character feels like a third wheel. Even he thinks so, resenting how his mother (Mary J. Blige, firm but underused) seems to love Daniel more. What part does he play in the story?
“The Violent Heart” is unclear on what genre it wants to be. Is it a coming-of-age movie? A melodrama? A thriller? Why boil the pot with that brutal shooting up front, then relegate it to the back burner? Turns out (without saying too much), the film isn’t so interested in bias or bigotry. Instead, it’s beholden to a string of coincidences, guilty of withholding information that, once revealed, ruptures the credibility of all that came before. Sanga should have trusted this couple to steer the plot, instead of imprisoning them in it.