I’ve seen my fair share of LGBTQ films about living in the American South. So many that at times it feels like an overdone trope – and this from a queer woman who was raised in the South and still lives there. I will admit I approached my viewing of Heartland with some skepticism, braced for yet another telling of the much the same story. And I was more than pleasantly surprised.
While Heartland is deeply Southern, it is also quietly so. Filled with subtle touches and intimate moments which make the characters feel all the more real, while simultaneously crafting a homegrown sense of place. All the old and familiar elements are there: queer child, bigoted parent, shame and secrecy. But they feel new. And real. No overdone accents. No point to prove about how backwards and awful the South is. No sense that this queer woman is longing to escape the small town where she grew up for a more welcoming environment. Just a woman who has found a way to have joy and love despite adversity, only to lose it. A woman who loves her hometown, and her mother, even when they don’t always seem to love her back in the ways she needs them to.
I was also struck by the lack of a clear message in Heartland. Sometimes LGBTQ films come with political overtones, but this one did not. All the characters are flawed, and they all are sympathetic at the same time. The film doesn’t take a side. We’re shown how shut down Lauren (VELINDA GODFREY) is, and the ways her grief and denial cause her to act out in destructive ways. We’re shown how lost and unsure Carrie (Laura Spencer) feels about everything, and how that causes her to sabotage her own relationships. We’re shown how lonely Crystal ( Beth Grant ) is, and how she probably feels she can’t afford to alienate her local support system. And we’re shown how much Justin (AARON LEDDICK) has compromised his own desires and beliefs to chase the American dream. It’s refreshing to see a film which can show a dysfunctional family dynamic for what it is, without forcing any one character into the role of either hero or victim.
The most surprising thing about Heartland is that it almost doesn’t feel like an LGBTQ film at all. And I mean that as a point of praise. I would hope that we are past the time when queerness is the end-all and be-all, the defining characteristic of any character in fiction. I am pleased to see a film where sexuality is just another trait in a well-rounded character, but not emphasized at the expense of all the others. A film about the South which is honest about how conservative it can be without steering into the territory of stereotypes and tropes. A film where it isn’t the Southern protagonist questioning her sexuality, but someone raised in a place where that should have been acceptable, proving that nothing is black and white, and that life can always surprise us.
More than anything, Heartland is about grief. It’s about loss, connection, losing ourselves and finding ourselves all over again. It’s about family bonds, and how they can disappoint us while they sustain us. It’s about the search for connection and meaning in a life that guarantees us neither. It’s about the quest for joy and purpose. It’s about the choice to do what we’re told and play the hand we’ve been dealt, or to try to make something for ourselves against the odds.
Heartland shows us that queer people don’t have a monopoly on shame. It illuminates the ways that being forced to interrogate the lie of compulsory heterosexuality provides us with the choice to question everything – and also shows what can happen if any of us don’t ask those questions of ourselves and each other. Heartland asks important questions about where and how we make a home for ourselves, and what happens when our ideas about what we wanted from our home can’t live up to the reality. But Heartland also solidifies that queer people can have a home. That we aren’t relegated to an urban diaspora, and that sometimes our biological family and our chosen family can align.
I have seen some other reviews characterize Heartland as a lesbian film, so the last thing I will say is that Heartland is a bisexual or queer film if it is to be given any label at all. An individual’s sexual history is not erased the moment they have a same-sex experience, and there is enough bi erasure in our culture that we don’t need it in films, too. Allow sexuality to be fluid. Don’t trap people – whether fictional or not – into boxes. Two women can only have a lesbian relationship if they both identify as lesbian. We need to embrace a world beyond gay and lesbian – a world where all the permutations of human sexuality are valued and represented. A film like Heartland is a good step on the path to that future, and it should be acknowledged as such.
If you were raised or reside in the South, if you come from a complicated family, if you have been touched by grief and loss, if you have ever questioned the life you were told you were supposed to live, then you need to see Heartland.
Heartland premiered March 2016 at the Cinequest Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Narrative Feature Drama. You can see Heartland on Friday, September 9 at 2:35pm at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar as a part of the 29th annual Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival.