Essentially recycling subplots, characters and themes from his acclaimed 1985 documentary STREETWISE, Martin Bell, in his feature debut, fails to find any new or compelling observations on Seattle's street scene.
Just released from prison for robbery, Jack (Jeff Bridges, who also co-produced) comes to Seattle to try to restart his life. But he's immediately addled by the arrival of his 14-year-old son Nick (TERMINATOR 2's Edward Furlong), who has fled his aunt's farm over friction with her new husband.
Jack grudgingly lets Nick live with him at the seedy SRO where he rents a room and begins a job as a window washer while trying to avoid temptations to return to the criminal life proffered by his ex-partner Rainey (Don Harvey). Jack also tracks down Charlotte (Lucinda Jenney), a prison pen pal
whom he met through the personals column of "American Heart," a magazine for inmates. Lacking the paperwork to enroll in the local public school, Nick takes a paper route to help Jack save for his dream of moving to Alaska. He also begins spending his days with street kids, including a
transvestite hooker (Marcus Chong), a feisty lesbian who tries to protect the younger kids from street predators (Maggie Welsh), and a fellow paperboy, Rollie (Christian Frizzell). He also has his first crush, on pretty but cold-blooded teenage hooker Molly (Tracey Kapisky), who encourages Nick to
steal for her, causing Jack to throw him out. Though hungry and homeless, Nick hasn't the stomach for prostitution and accepts an offer to rob a house from Rainey, which costs Rollie's life. Rainey also steps up the pressure on Jack by robbing his hotel room, stealing his Alaska "nest egg."
Tracking down Nick, Jack hears his son's tale of woe and goes after Rainey, beating him up and robbing him before going to meet Nick at the ferry docks for the first leg of their journey to Alaska. Rainey pursues Jack, however, and shoots him as he's about to board the ferry. As the boat pulls
out, Jack dies in Nick's arms.
The contrast between AMERICAN HEART and STREETWISE is so stark and remarkable as to provide almost a textbook lesson in the formal differences between fiction and documentary films and why, with few exceptions (such as THE THIN BLUE LINE), the twain should never meet. STREETWISE remains one of
the most genuinely poignant films of recent years, due to the dreams, desires, hopes, desolation and desperation of its band of protagonists. It also never felt false for a moment, while AMERICAN HEART never feels real for a second. The engaged observation that drew viewers into STREETWISE's
frightening underworld feels forced and phony in HEART, with the ugly truths and hard realities that gave STREETWISE its powerful undercurrent seeming like props here.
Bell, with STREETWISE collaborator, noted photographer Mary Ellen Mark, and writer Peter Silverman (Mark's cousin, with a background in TV), fail to get under their characters' skins. The relationships do not develop and the narrative is slow-moving and predictable. The writing in particular
seems to mistake inarticulateness for authenticity. By contrast, what was most startling about STREETWISE was how expressive its subjects were, despite their virtually nonexistent educations. HEART's performances are similarly uneven. Furlong and Bridges have no chemistry together as a father and
son. Furlong gives a one-note performance of weariness while Bridges stays stuck in an annoying scenery-chewing "likable rogue" mode. The supporting cast fares better. Welsh's recreation of one of STREETWISE's most memorable characters is eerie in its accuracy and authenticity. But Kapisky winds
up stealing the film with a gutsy, ruthlessly uncompromising turn, offsetting her character's coquettish street persona with a deadly, piercing steeliness in her eyes that bespeaks a soul snuffed out before it ever had a chance to breathe. For the most part, however, AMERICAN HEART goes off track
early and stays there, stuck in a dismayingly inappropriate mood of romantic machismo that overwhelms anything else the filmmakers may have wanted to say. (Adult situations, profanity, violence.)
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