The frivolity of touchy-feely new age platitudes and a hooker with a heart of gold familiarities meet unevenly in “Bleeding Heart,” a feminist fantasy revenge picture in the style of “Thema & Louise” that cannot transcend its contrived plot conceits and dubious motivations. The sophomore directorial effort of Diane Bell (2010 Sundance entry “Obselidia”), “Bleeding Heart” centers on May (Jessica Biel), a 30-something yoga instructor with a burning little discovery she cannot wait to act on— a private investigator has found her long-lost younger biological sister, Shiva (Zosia Mamet from “Girls”), who we soon find out is a prostitute (“sex worker” being her choice descriptor) who the protective sibling will feel the need to rescue from her circumstances.
May lives with her boyfriend (Edi Gathegi), another yoga instructor, and everyone’s chakras are outwardly balanced and in order. But upon meeting Shiva, May’s not-so-perfect world is suddenly turned inside out. As the title suggests, May takes a Good Samaritan interest in the lost, puppy-dog-like Shiva, a lady of the night who’s down and out financially, but still vivacious and brightly spirited. The one thing holding Shiva back from truly blossoming into the woman May feels like she can transform into is her boyfriend, who also happens to be her abusive, cruel, asshole-ish pimp, Cody (Joe Anderson). This central, though peripheral, conflict of the movie — the manipulative, cruel, leather-jacket wearing badboy boyfriend — feels phony and tonally out of place juxtaposed with the more humanist and authentic story of sisters reconnecting.
Even when the movie’s formulaic “sisterhood of unsatisfied dreams and desires” theme coalesces — May’s carefully curated, zen-like state is really just a façade for everything she’s missing inside, craving Shiva’s free-spirited mien; May’s life is “centered” and she’s naïve, Shiva’s life is chaotic and she’s street smart — their collective need to escape their lives is still more engaging and genuine than anything related to the romantic discord, thanks to the two main actresses.
Both leads pull off refreshingly convincing turns. Jessica Biel may not be exactly known for her award-winning performances, but “Bleeding Heart” might be her most effortless role to date; less acting and more being. Zosia Mamet is also quite good as the untrammeled woman trapped in the co-dependent tragedy of a toxic relationship. When the movie occasionally falters throughout (and it does), the two women anchor the picture. But neither of them can salvage the inevitability of the plot — May being sucked into the turmoil of Shvia’s life — and the suspension-of-disbelief-breaking turns they take in the third act.
“Bleeding Heart” has a gun problem too. Before the movie has totally crystallized its revenge fantasy intentions, it’s a moderately soulful, pitched-in-a-minor-key drama about sisterhood, support, and the like. But when Cody’s gun appears in a drawer at the top of the second act — and of course we all know it eventually has to go off — the movie reveals its true colors. Here’s where its motivations become truly unfortunate, as the story is essentially engineered to put the females in a position to bring vengeance upon the abusive asshole boyfriend.
Mind you, Cody is a worthless shit, but the hollow nature of this journey explains why the filmmaker isn’t very interested in the hows and whys of a mother giving up two young girls, or why May wanted to track her sister down in the first place. The “long-lost-sisters” conceit is basically a device to bond two women with a vaguely connected history in order for them to enact vengeance.
Not all is totally off in the well-intentioned “Bleeding Heart.” In fact, the various talents of many involved in the film make the final product a kind of shame. Bell clearly has an eye for filmmaking, communicating empathy, and even creating quietly touching moments. And using the skills of her DP Zak Mulligan and composer/musician Liam Howe (ex– Sneaker Pimps) in tandem, she creates some effective, dreamy, and sensual atmospheres of longing. But just as these moods waft into their air, inevitably the ethereal feelings become overwrought and devolve into forced music montages where the air blowing through one of the girl’s hair is supposed to represent the ephemeral sensation of escape the women in the movie so obviously crave.
“Bleeding Heart” reminds you that you can pass the Bechdel Test with flying colors and that doesn’t automatically gift your movie a worthwhile grade. For one, it’s ironic and amusing to watch Edi Gagilethi play the underwritten girlfriend role only for a man, showing that female filmmakers can also make the mistake of plugging in one-dimensional token characters just to flesh out a thin plot. And every other male is essentially written as a facile monster, especially Cody.
Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with female-led revenge fantasy films — the ladies should be able to play in that sandpit too. “Kill Bill” and, to a slightly lesser degree, “Thelma & Louise” have these payback elements and are perfectly great. But both films create convincing emotional journeys and earn their retribution. The reprisals of “Bleeding Heart” feel manufactured from minute one — like a screenwriter working backwards from a moment of heated reckoning and trying to concoct a story around it. It’s simply not believable and the seams of the narrative show.
Perhaps the most dispiriting elements about “Bleeding Heart” is how it essentially says freedom and escape from wicked people can be found at the barrel-end of a gun and a click of a trigger. “Bleeding Heart” undermines its characters too. They really deserve a post-script, but when the film’s boogeyman is gone, it doesn’t have anything else to say. For some audiences, “Bleeding Heart” may deliver some much needed catharsis, but it’s ultimately a hollow film that isn’t concerned with consequences or the echoing cycle of violence, just vanquishing the bad guy, reclaiming a dime store sense of “freedom,” and not much more. [C-]