Writer/Director Kerem Sanga’s fourth theatrical film The Violent Heart follows Daniel (Jovan Adepo), who unfortunately has had some difficulties in his life. As a young child, he adored his older sister Wendy (Rayven Ferrell). One night he sees her sneaking off to get in a car with her unknown boyfriend. Ever the curious one, he follows the car on his dirt bike until he catches up to it parked in the woods. There he sees his sister get killed by her mystery lover, leaving a confused young Daniel to ponder what happened.
But that’s not really what The Violent Heart is about, as right after the intro, the film picks up 15 years later. Daniel is now 24 years old, but due to probably some rage issues, he’s been in prison and now works as an auto mechanic at a local Tennessee car shop. He lives with his mother Nina (a criminally underused Mary J. Blige) and his younger brother (Jahi Di’Allo Winston). His father Lee (Cress Williams) is a soldier who pretty much spends all his time in Afghanistan, so he is the de facto man of the house. Everything changes when he services the car of Cassie (Grace Van Patten).
Cassie is an 18-year-old young white girl, who’s acing her senior year of high school. Her father Joseph (Lukas Haas) just happens to be her English teacher and gives her the space one would for a young daughter who’s ready to move onto college and the next chapter of life. When Daniel tells Cassie that her car needs additional work done in it and has to stay at the shop, she asks him for a ride back to school. While the two don’t necessarily hit it off, they are now aware of each other’s presence. Surprisingly, Cassie is the one who pursues Daniel, and the two quickly become an item as they ignore everything else to be around each other. Daniel wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a soldier as a means of giving back and making a difference, and Cassie is very supportive of this attempt. But he does have a temper.
While the romance between Daniel and Cassie is fine as both Van Patten and Adepo give good performances, a more interesting film would have probably been in the missing 15 years, instead of a romance in the aftermath. One surprising thing is how post-racial The Violent Heart tries to be. Here is an older black man dating a significantly younger white woman, who just crossed the barely legal threshold, and in the Deep South, and race is only mentioned one time in the film. In fact, Cassie’s parents only tell her to steer away from him because he went to jail, not because he’s black. The whole time there were some strong Emmitt Till vibes, yet the film completely ignores race. Perhaps it’s a good thing, but in today’s climate, it requires a suspension of disbelief.
In addition to the two leads giving solid performances, the supporting cast is also impressive. Lukas Haas gives off very creepy vibes as Cassie’s father, especially when Cassie suspects he is having an affair with a fellow teacher. Mary J Blige also reminds you why she was nominated for an Oscar, and thank goodness she can shed that horrible performance she did for Power Book II. One of the true MVPs of The Violent Heart is newcomer Jahi Di’Allo Winston who plays Daniel’s younger brother. There are a few key scenes throughout the film that focus on him and gives him great moments to shine.
Unfortunately, there’s a key moment that happens in the third act of the film that COMPLETELY derails the whole movie! There’s the idea of doing a Shyamalanian twist, and then there’s the “let’s do this to shock the audience” that’s completely bland. The Violent Heart opts for the latter. When the moment comes, it is almost eye-roll inducing and changes the entire narrative of the film for plot convenience purposes. It completely reduces the film to its bare bones afterward and tries to turn what was shaping out to be a coming-of-age film into a poorly contrives mystery thriller, and once again, completely out of nowhere.
As stated, a more interesting film probably would have been about what happens to Daniel and his family in the 15 years after his older sister’s murder and the pain and agony the family had to deal with, while their father was absent serving his country. Instead, we got a unique romance that crashes and burns trying to deliver unnecessary surprises to the audience.
The Violent Heart will be available in theaters and On-Demand Friday, February 19th.