Kerem Senga’s latest film starts with innocence painfully lost. Nine-year-old Daniel watches his sister’s behaviour change when their military father is home on leave; later, he follows his runaway sister only to see her be brutally murdered. The killer is never found, the father leaves for war, and the film fast-forwards to Daniel’s young adulthood. Now twenty-four (and played by Jovan Adepo), he works as a mechanic and wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but a high school prison stint seems to be in the way. Enter Cassie (Grace Van Patten), an outgoing middle-class high school senior who has never been afraid to ask for what she wants, and an instant spark ignites.
Billed as a Southern Gothic Romeo and Juliet, The Violent Heart immediately sets itself at odds with Shakespeare’s eternal tragedy in its premise: these are not two households both alike in dignity, but instead, Daniel’s working-class Black family living with the memory of a violent crime and an affluent white family with peril-free professions. The familial and reputational obstacles the script throws in Cassie’s way — perhaps to try to give both parties equal stakes in the forbidden romance — feel overwrought and unearned by comparison. Cassie’s rebellions invoke more terror and consequences for Daniel — not herself — than devotion and selfless love on her side.
Billing quibbles aside, The Violent Heart is held back by an unspectacular script, derivative beats, and a plot that twists one too many times. The six-year age difference in the characters (Cassie as an 18-year-old high school senior) would possibly have worked if were it not for Cassie’s repeated insistences that high school boys do not interest her. As is, it reads uncomfortably; Cassie’s attachment and affection for her star-crossed lover seem to take second place to her escapist fantasies. The moment when Daniel reveals his prior conviction to Cassie, and she equates the time she stomped on an irritating classmate’s glasses to his arrest for assault, sits on the line between a genuine, awkward interaction between young people seeking common ground and a white person inserting herself in a system she will never know.
All this said The Violent Heart succeeds in its depiction of grief’s unending processing, especially through the eyes of children. Daniel’s relationships with his mother (Mary J. Blige) and younger brother Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) are captured in small moments of intimacy, and Aaron’s journey through inherited grief drives an underdeveloped yet poignant interaction with a classmate. These moments are unfortunately lost as the mystery of the older sister’s murder sweeps back into the third act, driving to a conclusion that relies on predictable shocks.
Senga’s bold approach to the story is commendable. Leaning into melodrama and Southern Gothic aesthetics to tell a tale bigger than two young people. However, the ideas he explores are often underserved by the execution, unduly lightening the intersectional privileges and prejudices at stake.
The Violent Heart is in theaters and on demand
by Carmen Paddock
Carmen is an American living in Scotland. She holds a Masters in International Film Business from the University of Exeter / London Film School, and while now working in technology she keeps her love of film alive through overenthusiastic writing and an unhealthy amount of time spent at the cinema. Favourite films include West Side Story, 10 Things I Hate About You, Ever After, and Thor: Ragnarok. Follow her on Twitter @CarmenChloie