Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
In the mid-1980s, director Martin Bell made the Academy Award nominated documentary Streetwise, which followed the lives of several homeless children in Seattle. One of its subjects was a 16-year-old hustler named Dewayne, whose father was incarcerated for robbery. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Dewayne visits his father in prison and his father assures him that some day, they’ll be a family and go into business together after they’ve cleaned themselves up. And the most tragic moment of the film is when it’s revealed at the end that Dewayne committed suicide just before his 17th birthday.
“American Heart,” Bell’s 1993 fictional film based on this relationship and other aspects documented in “Streetwise,” contains the same spirit of grittiness and honesty. As a result, it’s a well-acted, well-written drama about the universal problems poor people face in the inner city.
Jeff Bridges stars as Jack, an ex-con just released from jail and trying to get his life back on track. Edward Furlong is Nick, Jack’s teenage son who has been staying at his aunt’s farm most of his life. Nick tracks Jack down and wants to stay with him, but Jack tries to send him back, with no avail. Realizing he’s stuck with the kid, Jack tries to make the best of it while also getting a job and making a living without resorting to old habits. He’s not a very good role model and the father-son relationship is edgy. As days pass, they find ways to connect, but problems arise as well, leading to trouble.
Meanwhile, there are three subplots. But each one connects to the main plot (as the best subplots do) in an effective way and they’re all well-done. One involves a relationship between Jack and Charlotte (Lucinda Jinney), a female cab driver Jack corresponded with while in prison. It’s sweet, funny, well-acted, and well-written, especially considering the undercurrents Charlotte adds to Jack and Nick’s relationship, which is already strained. Nick isn’t sure how to feel about Charlotte being there, since Jack is spending more time with her than with him. Another subplot involves Nick falling in with a crowd of streetwise kids and, among them, gets a girlfriend of his own: Molly (Tracey Kapisky), whose mother works as a stripper. The problem here is that Molly helps bring Nick down to her friends’ world of crime and debauchery. But Nick is in love with her and doesn’t care what happens to him. And it’s here where Jack must become a better father to his son. And then there’s Rainey (Don Harvey), who used to work big scores with Jack before he was imprisoned. Jack wants nothing to do with him anymore, but then Rainey goes after Nick, who can’t quite resist what he could get away with.
Jeff Bridges is perfect as Jack. This is honestly one of the best performances this great actor has ever pulled off in a long, successful career. I don’t see Jeff Bridges playing a part; I see a rugged, shaggy, burned-out man who feels hopeless and is constantly trying to get his life together while also keeping track of his son who he hasn’t seen in years. Edward Furlong is just as convincing as Nick, bringing a good sense of yearning and solemnity to the role of a kid seeking a bond with his father.
The script is very well-done. There are some effective lighthearted moments amidst the dark material of the film; the dialogue is perfect; and the back half doesn’t allow the easy way out, in which everything goes right. Not everything does turn out right. That’s life—life’s tough, get a helmet. It’s pretty powerful stuff.
Overall, “American Heart” is a terrific film. The performances are great, the script is fantastic, and the issues are as prominent now as they were in the early-1990s, when the film was made.