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Bleeding Heart

D: Diane Bell / 88m

Cast: Jessica Biel, Zosia Mamet, Edi Gathegi, Joe Anderson, Kate Burton, Harry Hamlin

Bleeding Heart is likely to end up being one of those movies. You know the ones, those  “interesting” looking movies you pass by on your way to the New Release/Blockbuster section of your local DVD store (if there still is one in your area). It has a well-known “name” actor or actress in the lead role, and is often a drama that looks intriguing and which you may even pick up to read the blurb on the back of the case. But chances are that even then you’ll think twice and instead, plump for the latest Bruce Willis flick (Career Suicide Part 9 perhaps), or the most recent Katherine Heigl humdrum rom-com. But if you did put Bleeding Heart back on the shelf, then you would be doing both it and yourself a serious disservice.

It begins with Jessica Biel’s slightly ethereal yoga teacher May extolling the virtues of a non-violent, peaceful existence. She and her boyfriend Dex (Gathegi) have big plans to expand their yoga business, and their sense of contentment – with their work, their lives, and each other – is palpable. But May has a personal issue she needs to deal with first: getting in touch with the maternal half-sister she’s only just located (and luckily only half an hour away from where she lives). Nervous and unsure if she’s doing the right thing, May knocks on her door and drops the bombshell she’s been carrying around with her for some time.

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The young woman who answers is ten years younger and suitably shell-shocked by May’s turning up on her doorstep. They agree to meet in a bar and May’s half-sister Susan, who likes to call herself Shiva (Mamet), is nice and agreeable and pleasantly surprised by this sibling revelation. The two get on and at May’s urging, agree to meet up again. Back home, Dex is initially pleased for her, but his focus is on their business and his support dwindles at the realisation that seeing Shiva is likely to become more important than taking their current success to the level.

May accepts a late night invitation to meet Shiva and her boyfriend, Cody (Anderson), outside a bar. Cody is aggressive and clearly has a volatile temper, and when someone reproaches him for speaking harshly to Shiva, he gives them a vicious beating. May and Shiva drive off and they go back to May’s place. The next morning, with Cody in jail, May and Shiva persuade each other that spending some proper time with each other is a good idea and they head for May’s mother’s place. On the way, they stop off at Shiva’s apartment to pick up some things and May discovers that Shiva is a prostitute. May is stunned by this and by the implication that Cody is both boyfriend and pimp. But Shiva is unconcerned by it all, even appearing comfortable with it.

As they begin to get to know each other, cracks start to appear in May’s relationships with her mother, Martha (Burton) (unhappy at not being consulted about May looking for Shiva) and Dex (unhappy that she’s no longer focused on their business). But she feels a bond with Shiva that she’s never felt before, and even though Shiva tells her she doesn’t need to be saved, May’s instincts are to do exactly that. When Cody gets out of jail, Shiva goes back to him, and he drops her off at a client’s home. May, though, follows them, and decides to rescue her, and the resulting effort leads to both a consolidation of their relationship and a showdown with an angry Cody.

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At its core, Bleeding Heart has a lot to say about relationships and the nature of power and control within them. While Shiva and Cody’s relationship is volatile and intense, and his control over her is the frame within which they exist, May’s relationship with Dex is, on the surface at least, more fluid and mutually supportive. But Dex has his own control issues, and in his own way doesn’t want May to do the things she wants to do. When she begins spending time with Shiva, and even gives her money to pay her rent, Dex is angry because May’s behaviour is a threat to the orderly existence he’s cultivated with her. And when May resists his insistence on maintaining their “status quo” his reactions are similar to Cody’s (though to be fair he’s not as violent).

With May coming to terms with the impact of having a half-sister in her life, and the repercussions of pursuing that relationship, the movie concentrates on how both women find their way out of what are unhealthy relationships for both of them. It doesn’t offer any blinding revelations, or even provide any new insights into how people justify their staying with people who profess to care about them but don’t show it in reality (or when it’s really important to do so). But what it does offer is a chance to see how two people can find real dependence in each other, and despite having numerous obstacles put in their way. May and Shiva are more alike than they realise, and Bell’s perceptive script is careful to show the ways in which they begin to mirror each other, with the best of each one’s character having an effect on the other.

Both Biel – an actress whose career resumé is littered with too many lacklustre Hollywood movies – and Mamet are well suited to their roles, and their onscreen partnership is both subtly rewarding and emotionally resonant, with both actresses inhabiting their characters with confidence and skill. Biel undergoes a physical as well as emotional change, and shows a burgeoning strength of purpose that helps May refind herself after years of following what appears to be the path of least resistance. Mamet underplays the vulnerability beneath Shiva’s street smarts, and there are moments where her unhealthy dependence on Cody is both frustrating and yet entirely credible. It’s to both actresses credit that while May and Shiva are clearly recognisable “types”, they’re still sympathetic and likeable, and easy to root for.

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On the opposing side, Gathegi plays Dex like an injured puppy who can’t understand why someone would upset him (deliberately or otherwise), while Anderson’s turn as the outwardly charming Cody is hampered by his character’s lack of depth. Bell can be forgiven for this, as Cody is essentially the unthinking catalyst for the two sisters coming together, and without him this would be a different movie altogether; his adversity is necessary for May and Shiva to bond together with the appropriate intensity. That said, Anderson definitely makes an impression, and it’s difficult to remind yourself that he’s British.

Bell, making her second feature after her impressive debut Obselidia (2010), here tells a simple story with a firm grasp of the dynamics of May and Shiva’s relationship, and the unfulfilling lives they lead. If there’s an element of wish fulfillment towards the end it’s negated by the movie’s resolution, which is tougher and less cathartic than it might seem. Add some unshowy but deft camerawork by Zak Mulligan and you have a movie that is polished and assured and which offers far more than at first glance. And if Bell decides to revisit May and Shiva at some point in the future, that wouldn’t be a bad thing at all.

Rating: 8/10 – Bell is a moviemaker to watch, and imbues Bleeding Heart with a simple complexity (not a contradiction) that elevates the movie from its indie roots and provides the audience with unexpected rewards throughout; Biel and Mamet give great performances, and the whole exercise shows that even the most staple of storylines can be enhanced by well-judged brio and conviction.

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