June 1993

Jeff Bridges, right, and Edward Furlong, as his canny son in American Heart.

Martin Bell's American Heart is also about hopeless conditions, but in America. His hero, Jack ‑Jeff Bridges with long, greasy hair in a ponytail‑ like Angela's youngest son, chooses cleaning as the act of salvation. Ten years ago Martin Bell and his wife, the photographer Mary Ellen Mark, made a remarkable documentary about Seattle's street kids called Streetwise. One senses that compassion for the runaways and a desire to restate their cause through fiction might have been the inception of this rough, moving film. We've seen men living in flophouses before, in $65‑a‑week hotels, and we've seen men with nowhere to go with children tagging along after them; the hobo and the irrepressible child have been staples of American cinema forever. In American Heart, though, there's a sense of earned understanding. When Jack comes out of prison, his son, Nick, is waiting for him, but the first thing Jack does is trick the boy into getting on a Greyhound bus without him. Nothing is facile; the boy is sad and calculating and learns how to fend for himself in the jumpy, unpredictable world of the street children of Seattle. In Streetwise one met Tiny, a waif destined to be a hooker, and Rat, her teenage love, and Dewayne, who killed himself. In American Heart Bell has invented Molly, the little daughter of a stripper/hooker, played by provocative, blond Tracey Kapisky. As Nick, Edward Furlong has dark lines under his eyes and the look of an exhausted French movie idol; said, in the film, to be a shrimp at fourteen, he already is a desperate, romantic presence. American Heart is the name of the magazine that finds pen pals for inmates; through it Jack has been corresponding with Charlotte, a blond cabdriver played gamine and broad hipped at once by Lucinda Jenney; he picks her up in a pool hall, and she doesn't know he's her man from behind bars. Every time Charlotte says, "This doesn't feel right," she seems to be speaking the absolute truth; Jenney is a find. Using a story that doesn't have much of anywhere to go ‑Alaska is a dreamed‑of destination and stays a dream‑ Martin Bell provides a rich, textured slice of despair that is as authentic and upsetting as the miseries of Sicily but set in ‑and based on the truth of‑ what is said to be Amer­ica's number one most livable city.