Even as we hope for an ultimately heartwarming story, the movie wastes no time in ensuring there's little room to go anywhere but up. Early exposition presents us with the death of a loved one, and grief; cruel capitalist notions of housing, and the sundering of a life; the lack of care or support our society actually provides its citizens - least of all when they need it most; dismissive, condescending homophobia; the bonds, and limits, of family; and culture shock, and aloof snobbishness. All this cements the setting, and the themes, that will define the rest of the feature. Almost as quickly, however, we see how wonderfully earnest and heartfelt the picture is in following protagonist Lauren as she tries to grapple with loss, and forms a fast and close friendship with Carrie. Years of watching LGBTQ films has instilled a wary sense that every new addition to the loose genre needs to be taken with a grain of salt, as too many - even some of the very best - customarily tell a very familiar and often tired story of queer folks finding and losing love, if not also meeting a tragic end. Despite myself, though, 'Heartland' ingratiates itself to viewers in no time at all.
The themes and cultural differences that serve as the foundation of the narrative pairs uniquely with the warm sincerity of the physical setting, the place and the people. As a result, 'Heartland' is sometimes awkward and cringe-worthy at the same time that it's inviting and evokes nostalgia. It's a weird, delicate swirl of flavors, all in one: gawky, funny, infuriating, striking, lovely, and heartbreaking - but it works, as a cohesive, astoundingly well-rounded whole. It works because everyone involved clearly believed heart and soul in the story. Nothing in the production is approached with any less than than utmost care, from cinematography, music, and sound design to hair, makeup, wardrobe, set design and decoration, and beyond. Director Maura Anderson is not known to me, but she has some notable credits illustrating a firm background in film-making, and she proves her worth here with a balanced, thoughtful approach to orchestrating scenes, guiding her cast, and overseeing the production.
The writing is brilliantly sharp, vivid, and impactful. Star Velinda Godfrey, and fellow cast member Todd Waring, have devised a somewhat incredible screenplay that plays in recognizable spaces, but manages to skirt around the melodramatic tropes and pitfalls that characterize many of 'Heartland's' brethren. It does this with characters that are gratifyingly complex - filled with real and believable values, beliefs, and histories that sometimes conflict, just as is so with actual people, and little quirks that make them more complete. To these add dialogue that's rich and poignant, building and/or amplifying the characters, each scene, and every mood as it helps to propel the narrative. Much the same can be said of the careful scene writing, laying the guideposts for each moment that elicits such powerful emotions - while seeming to be sufficiently broad as to allow the cast to explore these moments, and their characters, and really embrace the full weight. And I cannot overstate how welcome and kind of refreshing the narrative is here. Again: it broaches story beats that we've seen before, and between the premise and the themes that are established so early it's inevitable a dire crash will come. Yet suffering, pain, and sadness aren't the crux of this tale - only ever the impetus for the real core: growth, self-discovery, centering oneself, rebuilding, moving forward. There are themes and ideas here that are melancholy, distressing, and all too real, but instead of a conclusive downbeat end, the picture leaves us with a small spark of open-ended, hopeful yearning. Frankly, it's outright marvelous.
And - forgive my loquaciousness - none of this would be possible without the tremendous cast. Everyone here is fantastically honest in their performances, demonstrating range and nuance and shining on the screen no matter the size of the part. Yet of course a scant few names stand out more than any others, and Beth Grant is very noteworthy as mother Crystal, bearing a certain duplicity in her demeanor; Grant is a dexterous actress who can easily slip into a character of any nature, and that ability is absolutely on display here. Aaron Leddick doesn't have nearly the same visibility, but is still solid as brother Justin, caught in the middle of a Venn diagram of bad timing and poor circumstances. More than Grant and Leddick, though, irrepressibly charming Laura Spencer is a great joy to watch as Carrie, and Godfrey is steady and sympathetic as protagonist Lauren. Both these women are awash in unenviable personal difficulties, pressures and demands, and quietly crumbling conceptions of stability, in different ways and to different degrees. There are similarities, though, that make both characters ones we can become instantly invested in. And Spencer and Godfrey wholeheartedly embrace them with splendid spirit and humanity that immediately endear them to us, both player and part. Individually they exhibit superb, vibrant acting skills that makes one wish for more good things to come their way - and as scene partners, Spencer and Godfrey are simply magnetic, with fabulous chemistry.
At risk of repeating myself, I entered 'Heartland' with particular expectations. Based on the premise alone I thought I knew exactly what the movie was going to be. I'm thrilled to acknowledge that I was mistaken: this is far more enjoyable, satisfying, rewarding, and indeed fulfilling than I could have anticipated. The story feels at once like one that is singular and original, but also universal. Every element of the film was considered and realized with only the greatest of intelligence, passion, and diligence, and still the writing and the acting register as sound, healthy anchors for everything that the feature wants and tries to be, and handily succeeds at. I'd be lying if I said I weren't impressed - for my money, 'Heartland' is a terrific, rather exceptional, and peculiarly fresh slice of LGBTQ cinema that nails critical emotional beats with surprising deftness. I can only give this my most enthusiastic recommendation; this is well worth watching wherever you have the opportunity!