Broken Harts


The Hart children are all smiles here (including Devonte, far right) but the smiles hide a dark secret.

(2021) True Crime Documentary (Discovery Plus) Sheriff Tom Allman, Jennifer Hart, Sarah Hart, Devonte Hart, Cynthia Bartley, Lt. Shannon Barney, Irene Vanryckeshem, Niema Lightseed, Drew Bunch, Adam Beck, Cheryl Hart, Jackie LaBrecque, Dana DeKalb, Raquel Warley, Zaron Burnett, Mia Williams, Shonda Jones, Diane Drystad, Dr. Jen Johnston. Directed by Gregory Palmer

 

On March 26, 2018, Jennifer and Sarah Hart of Woodland, Washington, along with their six adopted children, drove off the side of a 100-foot cliff in Mendocino County, California. Initially, onl the bodies of the two women and three of their children were found; over the succeeding weeks, the remains of two other children washed up on Mendocino beaches. The remains of 15-year-old Devonte were never recovered.

At first, it was thought to be a tragic accident, but as facts began to emerge, a darker picture was painted. On the surface, it appeared that Jennifer and Sarah were loving mothers whose children were smiling and happy. Jennifer’s Facebook page was filled with pictures of family outings where the kids were dancing, smiling and singing, particularly Devonte who grew into national prominence because of his appearance at rallies for Black Lives Matter following the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, MO wearing a “Free Hugs” sign around his neck. A photo of Devonte weeping as he hugged a police officer would go viral.

But the kids showed up in school with bruises, prompting the Harts to withdraw their kids from the school system and homeschooling them. Their neighbors, Bruce and Dana DeKalb, reported that the children would show up at their door begging for food, pleading with them not to tell their moms. On the 23rd of March, Child Protective Services paid two visits to the Hart home, but nobody answered the door. They came again on the 26th, but by that time th family was already dead.

The movie is presented in typical true crime documentary fashion, with plenty of home movies, still pictures and talking head interviews with law enforcement officials – primarily Sheriff Tom Allman of Mendocino County who investigated the incident – friends and analysts. Psychiatrist Dr. Jen Johnston gives rational, calm and factual information about the psychology of family annihilation, while journalist Zaron Burnett talks about the racial implications of the crime, regularly reminding us that both women were white and the six adopted children were all African-American. His claim that the women got a pass because they were white ignores the fact that most lesbians will tell you that passes are infrequently given to the LGBTQ community and that at the time of the adoptions, there were several states – including Texas, where the kids were originally from – that didn’t allow same-sex adoption, although because they went through an agency in Minnesota where the couple was living at the time, they were able to bypass those restrictions.

Palmer clearly makes Jennifer Hart the villain of the piece, making Sarah more or less an accomplice. There is an awful lot of editorializing and assumptions going on, some of it on the side of common sense, some of it a reach. Allman makes a case for a national registry of child abusers; had such a thing existed, it might have given Child Protective Services in Washington the ability to pull the kids out of the Hart home before their adoptive mothers took them on that final, tragic road trip.

While parts of the movie are dry, I thought that the real crime was trying to ascribe motives based on conjecture to be a disservice. Any good law enforcement official, particularly those involved in the prosecutorial aspect of it, will tell you that a competent investigation sticks to what can be proven. Unfortunately, the filmmakers here go too often for sensationalism and sound bites, perhaps in an effort to show that society failed these six kids. In fact, society did fail these children, but not necessarily in the way some of the commentators here opine.

REASONS TO SEE: Methodically presented.
REASONS TO AVOID: Needed more of Dr. Johnson and less of Burnett.
FAMILY VALUES: The content is disturbing overall, with descriptions of child abuse.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All of the Hart children were adopted through the Permanent Family Research Center in Minnesota.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Discovery Plus
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Murder: The Family Next Door
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Deliver Us From Evil (2021)

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Pete’s Dragon (2016)


A boy and his dragon.

A boy and his dragon.

(2016) Family (Disney) Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves, Levi Alexander, Jim McLarty, Annabelle Malaika Suess. Directed by David Lowery

 

In old maps, when depicting areas that had yet to be explored it was often noted “Here there be dragons.” It was a means of keeping those who might venture into parts unknown and claiming it for themselves; in this way certain governments were able to explore at their leisure. Of course, there are those who are quite sure that there really were dragons in these unexplored places.

A five year old boy named Pete (Alexander) is riding in the back of the car with his favorite book and his mom (Myers) and Dad (Reeves) up front. They are on a road that goes deep into the woods of the Pacific Northwest but while they’re in the middle of nowhere they get in an accident and suddenly Pete is alone, surrounded by danger. However, as it turns out, he’s not alone.

Some years later an older Pete (Fegley) is discovered in the woods by loggers and a pretty park Ranger named Grace (Howard). Her father (Redford) is a bit of the town eccentric, with his tales of finding dragons out in the woods. Most people look on him as a bit of a tale-teller but essentially harmless. She has a pretty decent life; her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) runs a logging company with his more aggressive brother Gavin (Urban) and she and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Laurence) have a very close relationship.

Now she adds Pete to the mix and soon as they discover the identity of the mystery child the question becomes “How did he survive on his own for so long?”  Pretty soon it becomes clear that he wasn’t exactly on his own and that his friend was in fact the same dragon that Grace’s dad has been telling tales about all these years – it’s just nobody ever believed that they were true. Now that they are, there are those who would exploit the dragon – whom Pete has named Elliott after the dog in his favorite book – and those who would separate Pete from those he has grown to love. Pete and Elliott must be stronger than ever if they are to get through this.

First things first; this isn’t a remake of the 1977 version of the film. This is a complete reimagining. The only real similarities is that there is a boy named Pete, he has a dragon named Elliott who can make himself invisible and that Pete is an orphan – Disney loves orphans if you haven’t noticed. In any case, the ’77 film is a musical set in a coastal town in Maine around the turn of the 20th century, this one has no music except for a collection of folk singers Lowery has gotten together to make up the soundtrack (as opposed to Helen Reddy who was the female lead of the first movie) and is set in modern times. The tone is also very different between both films.

The first film was also definitely a kid’s movie. This one is too ostensibly and your kids will enjoy it, particularly the shaggy green furry dragon Elliott who has a bit of the Great Dane about him. However, there is a lot more going on than just a kid outwitting simple-minded adults – which isn’t really happening here at all. Instead, this is a boy who has been visited by tragedy, who has made his way the best he can and forges the bonds of friendship that can’t be broken. The relationships are believable and the acting pretty natural. I’m thinking someone the stature of Robert Redford wouldn’t have gotten involved otherwise.

While Urban is the ostensible villain, he isn’t really a bad guy, just a weak one and he does come around near the end; Urban has become quite a good actor since his time in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Bentley, a fine actor in his own right, is wasted a bit in a nondescript role that gets absolutely no development whatsoever. Howard comes off best as the maternal and compassionate ranger. Fegley and Laurence, around whom most of the film revolve, are at least not annoying even as they in the middle of the movie begin to act like Disney heroes – doing unbelievably dumb and dangerous things that should get them killed but instead makes them heroic. I’ve always thought that teaching a kid to do the right thing shouldn’t necessarily involve teaching a kid to do the dangerous thing. Fortunately, I’ve not heard of a ton of kids getting themselves hurt or killed while trying to save the day in real life.

Like most Disney movies, there’s a tendency to bring on the sentiment and it can be quite cloying from time to time. Despite Lowery’s best efforts, there are a few cliché moments expressed in the film particularly near the end. The price to pay for using a Disney property I imagine. I would also imagine that here at Disney World, you’ll be seeing Elliott making appearances at the Wilderness Lodge in some form.

Hollywood often treats kids like morons, dumbing down their films aimed at kids which are in reality more or less excuses for merchandising rather than being entertaining and even educational films for entire families. When the parents go with them to see those sorts of movies, it can be an excruciating experience for the parents in particular. That won’t happen here; this is the kind of movie that parents can enjoy as much if not more than their kids. It’s the kind of family movie that you’d want to bring your family to more than once. It’s quite possible that the parents may end up liking the movie more than their kids do.

REASONS TO GO: A refreshing movie that doesn’t talk down to kids and is easily palatable for adults.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s a tendency to over-sentimentalize.
FAMILY VALUES:  There’s some peril (of a child) as well as action sequences and some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Redford rescued an abandoned horse on the second day of filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/12/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 71/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dragonheart
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The People Garden

Imperial Dreams


The face of urban stress.

The face of urban stress.

(2014) Drama (Super Crispy) John Boyega, Rotimi Akinosho, Glenn Plummer, De’aundre Bonds, Keke Palmer, Fat Dog, Nora Zehetner, Todd Louiso, Sufe Bradshaw, Maximiliano Hernandez, Anika Noni Rose, Ethan Coach, Justin Coach, Jernard Burks, Wilfred Lopez, Nik Petcov, Kelita Smith, Zilah Mendoza, Kandiss Edmundson. Directed by Malik Vitthal

Florida Film Festival 2015

In the years since John Singleton’s groundbreaking Boys N the Hood illustrated the agonies and the ecstasies of South Central Los Angeles, little has changed. The choices are few for those restricted by poverty and apathy; selling drugs and using drugs. Getting out of the cycle of violence and poverty has become nearly impossible.

Bambi (Boyega) is boyishly handsome and just home after serving a 28 month stretch for armed robbery. His son Day (the Coach twins) has been staying with his Uncle Shrimp (Plummer) while Bambi’s girlfriend and baby mama Samaara (Palmer) is also in jail for a non-violent crime.

Bambi wants to be a good role model for his son and stay on the straight and narrow. Shrimp has other ideas. He wants Bambi to resume his place in Shrimp’s gang. Bambi would much rather get a job. However, the system is stacked against him; the state has filed for child support on behalf of Samaara, cranking a debt that Bambi can’t pay without a job. He can’t, however, get a job without a driver’s license and he can’t get a driver’s license with that child support debt on his record. It’s beyond Catch-22; it’s Catch-23.

As hard as it is for Bambi to stay straight, the thug life continues to intrude. His cousin Gideon (Bonds) is on the run from a rival gang who mean to murder him and Bambi’s proximity to Gideon is putting both him and Day in danger but Gideon is one of the few who are out to help Bambi make it on the level. Bambi’s mom (Zehetner) is a raging alcoholic and his half-brother Wayne (Akinosho) who has a partial scholarship to Howard’s business school but needs money to make up the difference so he can actually go to college is thinking of taking a short cut that may lead him down the same path that Bambi is trying to get off of. An act of violence puts everything in flux and puts Bambi even more at risk than he has been, leaving him and Day as vulnerable as can be, living out of a car that doesn’t run with a pair of skeptical detectives (Hernandez, Bradshaw) and a social worker (Rose) on Bambi’s back.

This is one of those movies that I really wanted to like a lot more than I ended up doing. Clearly Vitthal has a good eye and ear for inner city drama, and knows how to tell a good story. The trouble is, this is the kind of story that doesn’t really tell us anything new. Particularly in the light of recent events in Baltimore, Ferguson and other places around the country, we’re particularly sensitive to the plight of young black men in predominantly African-American communities that are riddled with poverty, crime and drugs. While this story is sadly not one far from the stories of many young African-American men, I get the sense that it has been told more than once and more than once in this very Film Festival.

That said, Boyega (who was tremendous in Attack the Block) has the chops and the looks to be the next Hollywood superstar. In my review of that movie, I compared him to Denzel Washington and certainly he has that kind of charisma and screen presence. Here, in a much more subdued and less obviously heroic role, he struggles with his conscience and his frustration, knowing that the easy way out is to revert back to the old life, but that it would lead him to exactly the same place – if not a cold, steel slab in the morgue.

The rest of the cast are fairly solid, with the Coach twins doing particularly well as Day; the father-son dynamic between the two is genuine and affecting. Very often actors this young have a difficult time bonding with their screen parents but in this case that’s not the case. The heart of this movie is Bambi’s devotion to Day and if we don’t believe that, we don’t believe the movie. That the movie is convincing on that end is admirable.

I take it that the slang being used here is genuine to the time and place; at times I had difficulty figuring out what some of the characters were saying and subtitles would have been genuinely appreciated. While some might write this off as a feature-length rap video (and with some justification), that would be a bit presumptive. This is a solid film by a filmmaker with potential that is dominated by an actor who may well be a great one in the very near future.

REASONS TO GO: Star-making performance by Boyega. Loved the father-son dynamic. Captures the Catch-22 of the modern inner city.
REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t really break any new ground. At times needs subtitles to follow the inner city slang dialogue. A few too many cliches.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and foul language throughout; some drug use and lots of adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Filmed at the actual Imperial Courts Housing Project in Watts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fruitvale Station
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Homeless