According to Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. And these variations are compounded when said unhappiness involves the shattering grief experienced by the protagonists of Joshua Leonard’s effective little indie Behold My Heart. Examining the unexpected ramifications of one sudden death on the deceased’s devastated wife and son, this intimate and sensitive drama provides fine roles for Marisa Tomei and Charlie Plummer — once again, a performer-turned-director (Leonard starred in The Blair Witch Project and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday) has crafted a solid showcase for his actors’ talents.
Having premiered to warm reactions at Galway’s Film Fleadh in July, it is currently making the rounds of smaller European festivals and — boosted by the warm, intermittent presence of Timothy Olyphant as the ill-fated spouse/dad — should have no difficulty finding Stateside exposure at similar events before a long VOD afterlife.
Leonard’s directorial debut The Lie, which he also toplined, premiered at Sundance in 2011 ahead of a limited domestic release at the end of the same year. And it’s surprising that this belated follow-up failed to land a berth at the Utah jamboree, so closely does it conform to what’s become known, for good or ill, as the “Sundance movie.” No wheels are reinvented here, no new ground broken, and it’s predictable enough in terms of how individual scenes are developed.
But Leonard and his co-writer Rebecca Lowman deserve credit for delivering a straightforward and quietly affecting picture, intelligent and mature in its delineation of character and the unpredictable development of its narrative. As grief hits everyone in a different way, there’s considerable screenwriting latitude to depict oddball and unlikely-seeming behavior — for example, Margaret’s little-suspected flair for chainsaw sculpture.
Leonard and Lowman’s only real misstep is their decision to break up the action into named and numbered chapters, each announced by a numbered card, the title of each quite arbitrarily starting with the letter I: “Initiation,” “Inebriation” and so on. Not only does this interrupt the storytelling flow, the title of the third chapter, “Inertia,” proves an inaccurate description of its contents; this is the section where Marcus and Margaret start to emerge from their numbed inactivity.
They’ve been plunged into this state by the killing of Steve, which occurs just before the 10-minute mark as the result of a parking-lot scuffle. He nevertheless pops up throughout the remainder of the brisk 81-minute running time via flashbacks explicitly presented as being the subjective memories of Margaret and/or Marcus. As such, Steve — who seems to have made his living as an alt-country singer-songwriter (the title, unmentioned and unexplained in the dialogue, could come from his lyrics) — is recalled as a perfect husband and dad, hip enough to share a joint (“Initiation”) with his teenage offspring.
His shocking absence knocks his bereaved kin off the rails: Margaret hits the bottle hard, and in a drunken stupor makes a fumbled romantic pass at her horrified son. This occasions a painful breach between the two, explored in detail during the film’s second half as Marcus moves out of the family home in a quietly affluent corner of California and takes up residence in a tent in the nearby woods. Margaret eventually follows him, all the while supported by her network of concerned friends including Nancy (Mireille Enos) — whose amusingly ferocious final-reel scolding of mopey Marcus is a crowd-pleasing moment of raw emotion blended with droll comedy.
Indeed, while the bare outline of Behold My Heart may sound somewhat off-puttingly morbid, Leonard and Bowman successfully prevent proceedings from becoming too heavy or dark with regular moments of mood-lightening humor. It’s a tricky balancing act, but it’s one they are able to pull off with assistance from a fine ensemble.
As will come as a surprise to absolutely no one by this stage, Academy Award winner Tomei is powerfully empathetic, convincing and compelling throughout. American cinema’s current go-to boy for pasty-faced hesitancy, Plummer, who still looks about 12 from certain angles, meanwhile confirms that last year’s Venice-prized breakthrough with Lean on Pete was no fluke. In the process, he happily erases less pleasant memories of his mannered turn as the kid around whose abduction Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World so creakily hinged.
Production companies: Autumn Productions, Bella Vida Productions, Perception Media, Through Films
Cast: Marisa Tomei, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Olyphant, Mireille Enos, Emily Robinson, Nik Dodani, David Call
Director: Joshua Leonard
Screenwriters: Joshua Leonard, Rebecca Lowman
Producers: Mary Pat Bentel, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Dave Hansen, Marisa Tomei
Cinematographer: Quyen Tran
Production designer: Caroline Foellmer
Costume designer: Camille Benda
Editors: Jeff Betancourt, Arndt-Wulf Peemöller
Composer: Peter Raeburn
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee
Venue: Oldenburg International Film Festival
Sales: Visit Films, Brooklyn