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You’d have to be a heartless bastard to not get sucked into a story of a kid being pried away from his loving foster parents, the only family he’s ever known. And not just that, but being handed over to a lipstick-smeared, Courtney Love wreck of a woman—the kind who might wave a stuffed bunny furiously in front of her son’s face just before he’s loaded into the Social Services van.
That’s the powerful first scene of writer-director Asia Argento’s The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. After it, your heartless bastardry will eventually assert itself—exactly when is probably a matter of tolerance. Can you make it all the way to the boy’s getting corporally punished in the name of the Lord by his tyrannical zealot of a grandfather? Or do you think you’ll bail when the kid starts drawing giant stick figures on the walls to the nontune of a Sonic Youth instrumental?
The film was co-adapted by first-timer Alessandro Magania from a collection of “loosely autobiographical” short stories by one 21-year-old J.T. LeRoy. Turns out, though, that LeRoy “loosely” existed—purportedly as both the pen name of 40-year-old author Laura Albert and as a wig-and-sunglasses-disguised transvestite who made appearances and granted interviews after the writings of what were supposedly LeRoy’s childhood traumas became a sensation. It’s now known that this public figure was played by the half-sister of Albert’s partner. As for his/her three books, well, call them memoirs.
Argento, daughter of Italian horror master Dario Argento, keeps the grimy narrative compelling for a while. The director also plays Sarah, the monumental mess who got pregnant as a teenager and was forced to give Jeremiah (played, at various ages, by Jimmy Bennett, Cole Sprouse, and Dylan Sprouse) up for adoption by her evangelical parents. Seven years later—God knows how—Sarah regains custody of her son. She brings Jeremiah to a sparsely furnished apartment in the projects, tells him that his foster parents never loved him, and later, when he runs away, says that he’ll either be shot or crucified if he tries it again. And then she shares her drugs with him.
The Heart Is Deceitful is heartbreaking as the platinum-haired Sarah proceeds to neglect Jeremiah, leaving him in a car while she gets drunk with a boyfriend du jour, making him eat out of trash cans and even abandoning him for a couple of days while she and her presumably recently met husband, Emerson (Jeremy Renner), go off to Atlantic City for a honeymoon. Left alone, Jeremiah wanders around the guy’s apartment—Sarah left hers, trash bags in tow, shortly after getting custody—in his tightie-whities, bored and digging through Emerson’s stuff until he begins flat-out destroying the place. When Emerson comes back—alone—Jeremiah stands by with a belt, waiting to be beaten. Emerson is too distraught at being hoodwinked by Sarah to punish him, but what he does later that night is much worse.
It’s around this point—if not sooner—that the movie stops being a raw but sympathetic portrait of a boy’s traumatic upbringing and becomes simply raw. There’s no hope for redemption here: The cycle of Jeremiah’s physical abuse, molestation, and drugging and drinking just keeps repeating, and Argento presents it seemingly for its own sake. Even when Jeremiah—who ends up in a hospital after an episode of abuse, looking as haggard as a longtime junkie—is “saved” by his grandmother (Ornella Muti), he’s plopped into a stately household just as bad as the crappy one he’s left, run by his tyrannical religious nut of a grandfather (Peter Fonda). There are beatings, of course—and appearances by such goth queens and wannabes as Lydia Lunch, Winona Ryder, and Marilyn Manson, who are presumably here to assure us that films about beatings are cool.
Argento’s film does have a few redeemable aspects. Its performances are serviceable if extreme, with the three boys who play Jeremiah coming across as even more pitiable than the vamping co-writer/director/star. And this over-the-top portrait of sewer-dwelling trash manages some moments of realness—say, Jeremiah’s dinner of potato chips and American cheese-food in Emerson’s apartment. There are even a few fantasy sequences, such as the ones with the blood-red birds Jeremiah imagines whenever his life gets especially unbearable.
But that’s just the icing on the degradation. One piece of advice Jeremiah gets is to “keep your eyes open and your thoughts clear.” But unless you’re one for sadism, better to turn that line on its head: Prepare to hide behind your hands and maybe focus on that cuddly bunny from the opening.
Or perhaps a refreshing dip in the sea. Gaby Dellal’s On a Clear Day, one of those inspirational stories about working-class sods who cure their doldrums by undertaking a quirky challenge—in this case, swimming the English Channel—might be derivative as hell. (I’ll spot you The World’s Fastest Indian, Calendar Girls, and The Full Monty. Let’s see who hits 10 first.) But when you’re mired in muck—cinematic or otherwise—it could be just the thing.
Writer Alex Rose fills the movie with just enough humor and heartbreak to keep its feel-goodness from making you gag. The story focuses on Frank (Peter Mullan), a 55-year-old Glaswegian shipbuilder who has just been laid off. He’s lost without the job, miserable about the uncertainty of his future, and too proud even to fill out an application when he finally visits an employment agency.
Naturally, Frank also has a troubled relationship with his grown son, Rob (Jamie Sives)—ever since Rob’s younger brother drowned when both were children. Frank’s wife, Joan (the wonderful Brenda Blethyn), takes care to buy gifts for Rob’s twin boys and to shower her son and grandchildren with attention. Yet she’s a little down herself, occupied with little more than puttering around the house and unable to connect with her unhappy husband. Both Frank and Joan finally find projects to occupy their time, though: Joan wants to become a bus driver; Frank’s gonna cross the channel via “body boat.” Neither knows about the other’s plans.
There aren’t any surprises in On a Clear Day, and in a few cases the filmmakers launch their messages like bricks: In a library, for example, Frank runs into the owner of a local grease joint (Benedict Wong), who asks him, “What are you looking for?” The answer, of course, is “I don’t know, but whatever it is, it’s not in here.” And in addition to the distant husband, worried wife, and estranged son, there are the requisite ragtag pals: Impish Danny (The Lord of the Rings’ Billy Boyd), the semiphobic Norman (Ron Cook), and Eddie (Sean McGinley), the group’s cynical voice of reason. On the plus side, the characters interact like regular folk instead of constantly cracking wise, which makes their little jokes even more enjoyable. (When they’re told that the only local with an available boat to help with the swim is named Mad Bob, Eddie dryly comments, “He doesn’t sound normal.” Then Danny chimes in: “He sounds fuckin’ nuts!”)
The performances, too, are better than we should expect. Blethyn is the more comedic of the couple, whether her Joan is whoopsing her way to an empty seat when she’s late for drivers’ orientation or giving increasingly quizzical looks as she opens the door to one after another of Frank’s friends, there to plan the event she still doesn’t know about. But Mullan is this movie’s rock: His Frank doesn’t speak much, but his face—quivering at the employment office, stoic when he runs into his son, crossed by an ever-so-slight smile of awe when he watches a crippled child joyfully swim without assistance—is a marvel of expressiveness.
Resilience, obviously, is the Big Message of On a Clear Day. But it’s delivered neatly and pretty much painlessly. If you’re looking for something more cynical or realistic, well, it’s not in here.CP