Heartland is a film that will tear at you, but not for the reasons it hopes. At the heart of Heartland is a story about all the ache, frustration, and alienation the gay community struggles with and through, which would make for the indie gem of the year. Unfortunately, the film is so focused on belaboring the obvious and tired details of its setting, and it does so, somehow, from such an ingenuous perspective that it never really dives into its own effort.
Velinda Godfrey, who co-wrote (with Todd Waring), produced, and stars in Heartland, is Lauren, who we meet as she is suffering through her dying girlfriend’s last hours. With few options, and naturally distraught, she returns home to figure out what she’s going to do with herself. Unfortunately, her mother, Crystal (Beth Grant), is very religious, which means theirs is obviously a tricky relationship. As is perhaps not completely unusual, Crystal is more or less content so long as she can refer to Lauren’s now-deceased partner as “that friend,” pretend that alcohol consumption is somewhere in the vague rumor category, and otherwise view any and all events of the last 50-80 years as things that may or may not have happened… somewhere very far away.
Acting as catalyst to the hilarity that’s about to ensue is the arrival of Lauren’s brother, Justin (Aaron Leddick), and his long-time girlfriend, Carrie (Laura Spencer). Introducing us to their relationship sends the movie into a tailspin of narrative convenience over reality, and the film never quite gets its feet back under it from there. We’re led to understand that they’ve been dating long enough that Crystal is anxious for a wedding announcement that seems overdue, but we’re presented with details that make it hard to believe the couple met more than a few days ago.
It’s trying so hard to set up opportunities for Crystal to put her Bible on display that it doesn’t bother to think its situations through, or the writers only have a hazy awareness of relationships. Carrie shows up with an offering which turns out to be a wine decanter, and we’re supposed to believe that either Justin has never mentioned that his mother is the sort of God-fearer who is opposed to drink of any kind, and/or that he doesn’t know what the present is. We’re clearly in odd territory there already, but we soon learn that the couple are in Oklahoma to expand Carrie’s family winery business, but this hasn’t come up at any point in their relationship? As if things aren’t strange enough there, it isn’t until the zero hour that Carrie learns that she’ll be sleeping alone while under Crystal’s roof.
Our story gets moving once Justin is forced to leave for two days in order to pacify some investors or somesuch and circumstances conspire to put Carrie and Lauren together for much of the time he’s away. Even here events move questionably, from one stagy encounter to the next, mostly showcasing the belief that propinquity is the mother of all romantic attraction, but at least we start exploring the discussion we’re trying to have as opposed to sending bigoted, backward thinking up the flagpole one more time.
If the film could have moved through its examination of Lauren, relaying the underappreciated difficulties of living without the support of even being able to express grief, because that would require acknowledging your sexuality, it could have easily delivered. Worse, perhaps, is that what the film actually manages in terms of audience connection is only that now both sides now wish they could see the real story on screen.
Its pedestrian mockery of those extremely religious or locked in “traditional” attitudes about the possibilities of a woman supplementing a husband’s income are only upstaged by the half-hearted “youth” derision of the last generation rubes who don’t understand a “drink the Kool-Aid” reference. It’s the kind of thing written by someone who audited a Psychology course and then starts working “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” into every conversation as though they invented the idea.
Still, there’s something to be said for the idea that the story is in there somewhere, even if you’re mostly casting off chaff to get to it. Godfrey needs an editor, but she’s touching as an actress and the sincerity of her effort to broaden the conversation doesn’t wholly fall to the specifics of this discussion. Spencer is equally impressive, though she occasionally gets tripped up by the confines of the pseudo-reality she’s trying to whack her way through. When they’re alone together it’s a lot more believable that a lot can happen in two days, but only because they make it easy to imagine you found them here by way of some more palatable contrivance.