“Heartland” is another film about forbidden lesbian love

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I remember the exact moment in Heartland when I knew I would watch it again. It was a little under halfway through when the two female leads are riding in the back of a truck through open country, half drunk, accompanied by friends and a guitar, and toying with the idea of kissing each other. Though I am a North Carolinian, and the film is set in Oklahoma, that scene contained a truth that anyone familiar with rural America can recognize.

But by the end of the film, my confidence wavered. I was still on familiar ground, to be sure, but it was the well-worn soil of queer film tropes that the genre badly needs to outgrow.

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As you may recall, Heartland is the long-awaited indie drama conceived of in Jeffrey Tambor’s workshop by writers Velinda Godfrey and Todd Waring, directed by Maura Anderson and coaxed into being with the help of an Indiegogo campaign and the several celebrity endorsements (including Sarah Paulson, whose sister Rachel makes an appearance in the film).

The film follows Lauren (Godfrey), an Oklahoma artist in a state of emotional free-fall after the death of her girlfriend.

Having lost her job and her house (the film gets extra honesty points for depicting the financial wreckage left by a departed loved one), Lauren is forced to move back home with her mother (Beth Grant, who is magic and who you know from everything). Lauren’s mom is an empathetic but honest archetype of the God-fearing, scrapbooking, poor-but-proud archetype, and she can never quite bring herself to refer to Lauren’s late lover as anything but her “friend.”

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Lauren is shortly joined by her brother, Justin (like you even care), and his girlfriend Carrie (Laura Spencer), who are in Oklahoma to open a winery, which is a great example of flyover state politeness gone too far.

For a while, the movie borrows the tone of 2005’s Junebug, as we see the church functions and dive bars through Carrie’s left coast eyes, but when Justin leaves town on a business trip (the rookie mistake on which 90% of lesbian films are based) Lauren and Carrie embark on a rich relationship not just with each other, but with the unexpected beauty of the wide open country. Aided and abetted by that sweet Oklahoma wine, the two find themselves in ever more compromising positions.

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So here we have the rub. The “cheating on my boyfriend with the beautiful stranger” routine is one that queer viewers are all too familiar with, from Imagine Me & You to Kyss Mig and on and on and on. In successful interpretations of this story, the characters’ chemistry is so undeniable that you overlook the taboo. The best lesbian films also force characters to grapple with the repercussions of their betrayals. Heartland valiantly attempts to succeed on both counts, but it never quite sells us on either the passion or the guilt that follows. Don’t get me wrong: a forbidden hookup in a bathtub while a tornado rages overhead is incredibly hot and I would almost move to the Midwest just to try it, but it still feels less like a love story and more like a chance for Lauren to process her grief and Carrie to push back against her family’s expectations. In that sense, Heartland is less about finding love than finding your life’s path.

Even that could be the recipe for a successful film, but since we’re also supposed to be invested in the brother-sister, mother-daughter, and lesbian high school boyfriend relationships, it’s hard to know in which basket to store our emotional eggs.

Despite its flaws, Heartland deserves credit for making some unconventional choices. In its deeply flawed heroines, its loving but uncondescending depiction of rural life, and the bitter sweetness pervading all its central relationships, the film has admirable aspirations.

But it’s a time of flux for both country queers and for queer cinema, and Heartland finds itself caught, sometimes awkwardly, sometimes gracefully, in this moment of transition. Families have made uneasy truces with our identities (so long as it’s not “shoved in their faces”), and queer films are no longer coming out stories by default (though they still run into the same issues of societal and self-acceptance).  Even this film’s production history, with its mix of celebrity endorsements and crowdfunded solicitations, speaks to the strangeness of our current moment. So if the film this moment produced is at times uneven and unfocused, it’s still one that I plan to watch again.

Heartland is currently screening at Cinequest in San Jose, CA.

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