Looking Back at 2010s Films: Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls (Short Film)

17 Jul

By Tanner Smith

I remember over six years ago, this 40-minute short film closed out one of the Arkansas-short showcases at the 2014 Little Rock Film Festival. When the end-credits rolled, the audience went wild with loud applause and even louder cheering for over 30 seconds.

I was among the audience members making that noise. I saw many exceptional short films in that festival, but there was something about this one that truly stood out. When it won the award for Best Arkansas Film at the end of the festival, I knew it felt…right.

The film was writer/director Mark Thiedeman’s “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls.” And six years later, I still enjoy watching it from time to time.

Harrison Tanner Dean is immensely likable as Max, a conflicted Catholic schoolboy who attends boarding school and is struggling with both his sexuality and his religious beliefs. That inner struggle is what gives the film its key interest–someone coming to terms with who they are in what is already an awkward time for all of us: the teenage years. This character of Max takes us through the film, which is a great collection of moments in this time in his life–confusing moments, comfortable moments, harsh moments, and victorious moments. All of that makes for an effective coming-of-age film, and by the end of this film, we can’t help but feel (or at least hope for) happiness for Max.

Dean is excellent here, and so is Quinn Gasaway as Andy. Andy is the wisecracking rebel on campus who breaks numerous rules and tries to get under the skin of Father Alphonsus (C. Tucker Steinmetz), who punishes students by humiliating them. He becomes Max’s friend and confidant, leading to a wonderful scene late in the film, in which the two sit at a riverside and talk about their beliefs. It’s short, but it’s an open, frank, and understanding discussion that puts us further inside their heads.

And speaking of solid characterization, I also got that out of Father Alphonsus. Upon first viewing, I saw him as a two-dimensional strict archetype, especially since he seems to punish Max simply for being gay. Watching it again, there was a scene that made me think there was more to this guy than meets the eye–a scene in which Andy serves detention time under him and receives a stern lecture about why he’s not going to kick him out of school. Alphonsus uses a parable about a similar type of student as Andy. That scene gave me an idea as to how Alphonsus’ methods are effective…they’re hardly condonable, mind you, but little things like that let you know how he thinks.

The cinematography from David Goodman is fantastic. I learned from one of the film’s extras that it was shot mostly in natural light, which was a smart choice. The effect made me feel like I was there attending this school with Max and Andy and their classmates. It also helps that the acting from all the other boys is spot-on–early in the film, when they’re goofing off together before class is in session, I could have sworn I was watching a documentary.

Also delivering solid work are Karen Q. Clark as a friendly nun who seems to be the only person who understands and cares for Max, Jim Linsley as a sex-ed teacher who has an unusual way of warning students against masturbation, and Schafer Bourne, delivering a Tom Cruise-like cocky charisma as Max’s bully Kirby, whom Max has to fight in front of the whole school (as part of Alphonsus’ ultimate punishment).

But the real standout of “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” is Mark Thiedeman himself. As writer and director, he shows how he truly cares for his characters, delivers an atmosphere for them to explore, gives them a few laughs and a few troubles, and teaches them (and as a result, us as an audience) that while it’s easy to give in to the bullying that threatens your identity, it’s harder to grow and to embrace who you are right in their faces. You can tell he put his heart and soul into this project. (I haven’t mentioned that he loosely based the film on his own school experiences in real life–I don’t think I needed to.) And more importantly, it feels true.

I can’t recommend “Sacred Hearts, Holy Souls” enough. You can check it out here on Vimeo:

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