From the writer/director of the supremely strong and naturalistic First Girl I Loved, Kerem Sanga, comes another work about a romance that seems fated not to work, with far more dire consequences than the earlier film. The Violent Heart opens with a young boy named Daniel witnessing the murder of his older sister. He doesn’t see the killer, but the event has clearly changed him for life. The film jumps ahead 15 years, and now Daniel is 24 (played by Jovan Adepo) and working in an autobody shop, into which walks 18-year-old high school student Cassie (Grace Van Patten), dropping off her car and in need of a ride back to school where her father (Lukas Haas) works. Daniel gives her a lift, and their conversation sparks an interest in both of them, even though he’s hesitant because he’s Black and she’s white.
Cassie has a strong connection to her father, but when she catches him in a compromising position with a fellow student, it puts the first seeds of doubt in her about his honesty, pushing her closer to Daniel, who is starting to fall for her despite his reservations. We eventually find out that Daniel is attempting to get into the Marines, like his father did, but because he has a felony stint in jail for an assault that blinded a man in one eye, he has to get special permission from someone higher up in the military to be allowed in. He travels to Nashville for the meeting and Cassie ends up going with him; the impromptu getaway seals their relationship.
Like all derivations of Romeo & Juliet, The Violent Heart eventually turns bad for our young couple. His violent temper stays mostly in check, but when the whole world expects you to explode at any minute, it’s hardly surprising when it happens—although not with Cassie. Then almost without warning, the murder from 15 years ago comes back into the picture with unexpected (and unwanted) twists that turn this nicely realized love story into something out of a ‘90s detective movie, and not one of the good ones. It was enough that the killing impacted (and likely ruined) parts of Daniel’s life; it didn’t need to come back into his life once again and risk doing the same as an adult.
As good as the lead performances are, few of the supporting players are given time to shine, too. Haas is adequate here, but Kimberly Williams-Paisley as his wife is basically wallpaper in terms of her significance to this story. Mary J. Blige plays Daniel’s mother and makes the most out of the severely underwritten part. I also liked Jahi Di’Allo Winston as Daniel’s younger brother Aaron, who clearly idolizes his brother, with good reason. The Violent Heart comes so close to being substantial and great that it’s almost worse when it makes a hard left into its revelations (and there are several, all ridiculous). But there may be enough to satisfy some, if you don’t mind such wild turns. A close call for me, since for a while there, I was fully on board.
The film is out today in theaters and streaming via VOD.
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