Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 May

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Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Something I notice now in Mark Thiedeman’s films (particularly his shorts; I haven’t seen his feature “Last Summer” yet) is not merely how artsy and practically story-free they are, but how similar they are in theme and trademark. They all take place in the South; Christian elements are present; the main character is usually a homosexual male; and what I notice with his latest short, “Sacred Heart, Holy Souls,” is the assumption that the character’s homosexuality is possibly a burden when it comes to his Christian faith. That’s a fascinating concept, and while it was assumed in his slow-paced, artsy projects before, it’s actually discussed in “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls,” as Thiedeman tries a narrative story arc for once and allows his characters to talk about what they’re going through.

This can be either very schmaltzy or very effective, depending on the dialogue. Thanks to sharp writing by Thiedeman, it fits into the latter category. He shows a departure from his earlier films that really works.

That’s not to say none of his trademarks are absent in this one. They are there; they’re just not as blatant in this narrative. Though there is one exception, it makes for a clever gimmick. Often, the film shows pictures of Biblical elements that introduce a new story in this episodic piece (for example: a picture of “David & Goliath” is shown before a boxing match between two characters).

“Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” takes place at an all-boys Catholic boarding school, where a nervous boy, Max (Harrison Tanner Dean), attends. Max has been at the school for about a month now and doesn’t fit in with the other boys, who, particularly bully Kirby (Schafer Bourne), like to torment him. The usual places Max experiences torture is Sex-Ed and Gym class—Sex Ed, because the other boys like to make jokes about anatomy and sometimes call on Max to get a rise out of him; gym, because he keeps having certain feelings towards his classmates and is (possibly) afraid he might act on them. The only one at the school who knows that Max is unquestionably gay is a friendly nun, Sister Dolores (Karen Q. Clark), who understands what Max is going through and tries to help him through it. But Max knows he cannot tell anyone else at the school nor can he act upon his feelings. He does believe in God (“I’m not ready to be an atheist,” he says at one point), and he knows that he is gay, but he doesn’t see it as a choice as much as a curse.

In a Catholic school where all the boys make sexual jokes at one another and the priest produces punishment in old-fashioned ways, Max is in a predicament. The priest punishes students who smoke by smoking cigars with trash barrels over their heads, and even demands that two students who quarrel in the hallway must box each other in front of the whole school for humiliation on the weaker one’s part. Imagine what he would do if he found out Max was gay. These are some pretty complex issues presented in “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls,” and thankfully, they’re all portrayed in a convincing way. I bought Max’s plight and felt for him throughout the film. The conversations he has with the nun and his only friend & roommate sound like genuine conversations; Theideman not only has an eye for visual style, but he also has an ear for convincing dialogue. This is a very well-written script. Even when the story descends into a Big Match cliché, with a boxing match between Max and Kirby near the end of the film, he doesn’t go for the easy way out nor does he forget the importance of the situation at hand. After the match, it ends on a satisfactory note that says little but projects much.

The credibility not only goes to the writing but arguably more importantly, to the acting. Great acting is an important asset to this film. Harrison Tanner Dean doesn’t have a false note in his performance; C. Tucker Steinmetz is both funny and menacing as the old-fashioned priest who delights in humiliating students; Quinn Gasaway is excellent in the role of Andy, Max’s wiseass (straight) roommate/confidant, and delivers some funny one-liners as well; Karen Q. Clark presents genuine sweetness as the one who feels for Max; and Schafer Bourne is a credible jerk.

You just don’t see issues like this addressed this well in a teen feature film (though I would say “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is still very close, to be fair), and so I was pleasantly surprised to see how successful Mark Thiedeman is at switching gears in his own work to make this short film (which runs about 40 minutes in length). He has crafted a well-made, well-acted, well-written drama that shows what he can do when he steps outside his comfort zone. This is one of the best short films of 2014.

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