Seeing a movie called The Violent Heart, you might expect a 50s melodrama to be your awaiting pleasure, the type of time machine throwback romance with a title as profound as Lana Turner was glamorous. So it’s a jarring surprise to instead come across a new Kerem Sanga indie drama with such an understated, even melancholy star-crossed romance to offer, filtered with an unsolved mystery, a protagonist exuding stoic trauma, and a twist only the ripest of moviegoers will find surprising. On second thought, perhaps this really is a throwback.
15 years after witnessing the horrific murder of a family member at the young age of nine, Daniel (Jovan Adepo) finds himself adrift as an adult, constantly wrestling with the painful reality that the killer is still out there. He eventually crosses paths with Cassie (Grace Van Patten), a high school senior who admits she talks a bit too much, and as their friendship blossoms into something more, Cassie makes clear to Daniel (and the audience) that she is, in fact, 18, and they have nothing to worry about if they want to, you know, take things to the next level.
Apart from the stigma of their six-year age difference (admittedly a bigger deal when the younger person is still a high school teenager), Cassie’s family takes issue with Daniel’s troubled past, as he has a reputation in their small town for being violent. The film doesn’t really address the fact that Daniel is also a Black man dating a white woman in the type of heartland region where interracial marriage was illegal barely 50 years ago, and to that point, Sanga seems content to let the racial micro-aggressions of their relationship exist more as background mood-setting and also through the forlorn facial expressions of Cassie’s mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley).
There’s also Daniel’s younger brother, Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), who can’t help but wonder if his family is keeping some painful truths about their lives from him, particularly his mother Nina (Mary J. Blige). Speaking of parental drama, Cassie’s father and English teacher (Lukas Haas) also has some secrets of his own that she stumbles upon, which could upend her seemingly idyllic home life.
The fraying paths and interpersonal conflicts of The Violent Heart really are an intriguing amalgamation of Douglas Sirk’s wiry plots and the type of contemporary indie fare Sanga has found a comfortable space in as director and screenwriter. Every performance here proves that these actors know exactly their place in the film and how far they should go to recreate a fully-realized, heart-beating human being with memories, dreams, and everything in between. They’re just great characters to watch interacting and co-existing in calm, contemplative settings.
The problem is that The Violent Heart rests too much of its emotional weight on too many things. With all of its main characters forced to be the protagonists in their own stories, no one really comes out of the film with a well-realized arc to claim as their own. Patten and Adepo have a soft, but fierce chemistry that seems slightly rushed at first, until it becomes clearer why the typically quiet Daniel would find it so effortless to communicate effectively with someone as empathetic and honest as Cassie.
But this dynamic is uneven, with Cassie sometimes showing her age and lack of maturity when trying to offer supportive words of comfort to Daniel, which too often ring hollow. Just when the film is getting to a remarkable place in exploring the identity of their flawed, but uniquely drawn romance, it pivots several times into other plots and never quite regains its footing, like when you know you’re watching a single, complete thought of a story.
By the end, The Violent Heart goes down a fittingly dark path, but on a note that wants to be more bittersweet when it’s honestly just bitter. Mainly because the real heart of the story should be Aaron, but his place in this narrative is in constant battle with the mechanics of a forbidden romance, then a light thriller format that doesn’t really crystallize until the final act. It’s easy to see where a film like this could’ve hit much harder with its commentary about family, coming of age, and the agony of unexplained loss, particularly when it directly stunts your progression into adulthood. It’s just a shame The Violent Heart opts to be so many things, but never fully anything.