The great pleasure of The Violent Heart lies in discovering what kind of movie it actually is. Written and directed by Kerem Sanga, the story reveals itself in layers, unfolding first as a family drama, a meditation on grief, then a youthful romance, a suspense flick, and finally emerging fully formed as an effective thriller that unites each of these strands. Much of the forward momentum is generated by tiny details―a bird feather, a glance across a crowded classroom, a forgotten home video, a single typewriter key―which add up to life-changing complications for the characters. Perhaps a more apt title would be The Little Things, which unfortunately belongs to a different recent movie that doesn’t earn it nearly as well.

Sanga’s camera establishes a watchful mood in locations around a sleepy community in rural Tennessee, and an atmospheric score by John Swihart infuses the scenes with a sense of mystery. The vibe is languid and thoughtful, but the story’s pace is swift. Some films teach you how to watch them, and The Violent Heart does this in the first few scenes where a variety of character relationships are revealed gradually through subtle cues. This creates some uncomfortable moments of confusion, especially in the pairing of a teenage girl, Cassie (Grace Van Patten), with her English teacher, Joseph (Lukas Haas). What seems at first like a skeezy relationship clarifies into something more innocent, but the initial impression of a predatory angle lingers and informs subsequent events. Narrative shorthand like this becomes a kind of foreshadowing.

Such character-building moments feel literary in their subtlety and execution. The opening scene introduces young Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter), an African American boy with a dirt bike and a keen sense of curiosity. After witnessing a mysterious rendezvous that ends with a gunshot, he tumbles into a deep hole in the ground. Cut to a title card revealing that 15 years have passed, and adult Daniel (Jovan Adepo) is still in a hole, this time in a mechanic’s bay in the auto parts garage where he works. It’s a simple and elegant editing trick, building character through visual rhyme and repetition. Daniel spends most of the rest of the movie trying to get himself out of that metaphorical hole.

As the main protagonists, Adepo’s troubled mechanic and Van Patten’s guileless teenager make for an intriguing dynamic. Daniel as an adult is a taut spring, coiled by trauma but keeping his anger compressed by affecting a soft-spoken demeanor. Cassie, a popular white girl accustomed to charming her way into getting whatever she wants, is intrigued to find that her charm seems to fall short with Daniel, which, of course, draws her in. Like her father, there’s a streak of entitlement in the way she moves through the world. If this film were concerned with nothing more than the evolving intimacy between Daniel and Cassie and their different worlds, it would be enough, but the story’s momentum carries them elsewhere, and earns its title in an explosive third act.

The film’s true subject approaches elliptically, revealed in the shifting character relationships and ending up back in that hole in the ground where we encountered young Daniel in the opening scene. What he found down there altered his life, and its ramifications affect each of the characters, whose relationships turn out to be even more complicated and intertwined than was first apparent. As Daniel’s mother (Mary J. Blige) says, when explaining to her young son why she gave up pursuing a law career, “Sometimes things just don’t work out the way we expect them to.” That might make for a painful life, but it also makes for great cinema.

Summary
Much of the forward momentum is generated by tiny details―a bird feather, a glance across a crowded classroom, a forgotten home video, a single typewriter key―which add up to life-changing complications for the characters.
80 %
The Little Things
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