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deeply felt, but stripped of sentimentality, and one of Bridges absolute best
The only minor drawback with American Heart, and it should not be a big one for most concerned, is that so much of it is taken and/or borrowed from the details and real people and situations documented by director Martin Bell in Streetwise that it almost feels very slightly watered down in comparison. This is not to say that American Heart doesn't have its share of nicely defined grit or realism, but for those handful of viewers who were lucky enough to see Streetwise it isn't quite exactly the same, despite the similar locations and (some) real street kids used again and Tom Waits song accompaniment from time to time.
But this is minor as a liability for two reasons: 1) Martin Bell is out to make a film for all those audiences, however small in the independent film market, who didn't get to see Streetwise and want the facts put into a perspective of compelling dramatization, and he shows the goods as a director of naturalistic settings and specific scenes, and 2) Jeff Bridges. Bridges plays a character based upon a real convict (featured in only one, but perhaps the most shattering, scene of Streetwise) who is out of jail and has to take care of his 15 year old son played by very young Edward Furlong. Bridges gets so deep into this character, so in touch with the hard-bitten mannerisms and hard-knock-lived way to his voice and even the bits of vulnerability that it's hard to see it as anything less than remarkable.
If Furlong isn't quite as remarkable maybe it's to be expected since, frankly, he was still too young to impress much further than his own affected way of speaking and acting. Yet he is fantastic at playing off of this father character, who isn't unloving but knows what road he could go down with just one wrong step (such as, for instance, getting into business with his old crooked diamond-stealing partner). American Heart, on its own terms, allows for Bridges to show what a small treasure (yes, breaking out the pompous terminology like 'treasure') he can be as an actor in American film, and brings to light the degradation of the urban life in Seattle.
Indeed, as a big credit to Martin Bell, it's no less harrowing at times watching these people on the streets, in the bars or the crummy hotel rooms trying to get by or hanging out, living by wits end (if that) as in Streetwise. Only Herzog, with his two films on Dieter Dengler, can probably top Bell's films on Seattle's lower classes in terms of immense dramatic impact, technical skill, and a lead performance that embodies the attitude and conflicts of the danger at every turn. It's overlooked to say the least as far as highly charged but unsentimental indies go.
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