The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.
Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.