Review: Stop the Pounding Heart

Stop the Pounding Heart is a low-key modern neorealist look at cloistered religious upbringing clashing with the pitfalls of adolescence. It carefully treads the line between narrative and documentary perhaps more so than any other film I’ve seen recently – as such evaluating it becomes tricky. However, my interpretation of the film having seen it (through the end credits) was that I would treat it as a narrative feature. This notion is reinforced by something the director says in response to that vagary in the press kit:

I work exclusively with real life people and their true environments, so there are no actors involved in the traditional sense. At the same time, the underlying arc of the story is my own so you could say that the hand of the director is present. My involvement with these communities is a deeply intimate experience, and it required a lot of mutual trust. They were willing to open up their lives up to me, and me for properly portraying their lives to the public. In addition to the relationships that are cultivated over time, I also credit my shooting style with allowing people to feel comfortable in front of the camera. My production consists of a five person crew, no artificial lighting, and one take for each shot. One could say that this film follows in the traditions of Rossellini and Bresson, the latter of whom once said that more than realism, he was interested in truth. That comment has always stayed with me.

The brief synopsis up-top is the most succinct encapsulation of what passes for a narrative in this film, and that is not a slight; it does pass. For a while most, if not all, the turmoil is internalized and when it does overflow near the end it does so in a tearful confession by the lead, Sara (Sara Carlson), in which she cuts to what’s bothering her, but does not enumerate the events/symptoms bringing on such feelings.

Much of the running time of the film is spent watching Sara’s life unfold. All the characters in the film are eponymous. The film in large part engages in watching the characters behave and the most basic voyeurism known to man; the psychological root of our interest in cinema. There are established routines that come around full circle and at times have different iterations: homeschooling, bible study, selling at the farmers market, talking to Colby, watching bullriding, going on the firing range, etc.

While this film enjoying a different shade of behavioral observation that Chantal Akerman, Bela Tarr and others occupy what separates this tale is the documentarian removal. There is, due to the fact that there is a loose scripting, no talking heads, natural light; a distance and lack of judgement. Because the lives of these people is being explored as uninterrupted as possible it does achieve a sort of real slice-of-life effect.

This film is an affectation though, much as a more conventional documentary would be. What the guise of narrative allows it to do is widen its exploration of this family and place. A traditional documentary has to be about one thing only, even off-beat docs like Leviathan and Bestiary are about one unifying notion. As an affectation it is an affective one as it finds a humanity in these people regardless of what differences we may have. In a traditional documentary there’d likely be a point of view, in a narrative there is a slant to any tale, a commentary or moral. In this film the characters just are and we just watch them and have a small notion of what it’s like to be in their home, their town, their work, and their life. Because of the way these ideas, emotions and images weave together it just washes over you with minimal focus on where those differences lie, but more focus on where commonality exists.