The Violent Heart

★★★

William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has undoubtedly stood the test of time. It has been reinterpreted on screen countless times (Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 adaptation or Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 effort “Romeo + Juliet” for instance). It’s also inspired musicals (“West Side Story”), Troma gutter trash (the James Gunn-penned “Tromeo and Juliet”), action movies (the Jet Li vehicle “Romeo Must Die”) and animated pictures (“Gnomeo & Juliet”). The latest film to tip its cap to Shakespeare’s most famous work is “The Violent Heart,” which is now playing in limited theatrical release and on VOD.

It’s the early 2000s. Lee (Cress Williams of The CW’s “Black Lightning,” seemingly only filming for a day) is a Marine who’s returned to his wife Nina (Mary J. Blige) and children Wendy (Rayven Symone Ferrell) and Daniel (Jordan Preston Carter) in Tennessee from combat in Afghanistan. Nine-year-old Daniel is excited to see his Dad. Teenager Wendy is far less so – she seems preoccupied. Her preoccupation is explained when Daniel sees her sneak off in the middle of the night with a mystery man. He follows them on his motor scooter only to witness Wendy get gunned down by her shadowy shooter.

We flash-forward 15 years – Daniel (now played by Jovan Adepo) is working as an auto mechanic after having been imprisoned for blinding a classmate in one eye during a school-based fistfight. He meets Cassie (Grace Van Patten, daughter of go-to HBO director Tim Van Patten) when she brings her car into the shop for an oil change. She overhears Daniel saying he has to pick up his younger brother Aaron (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) from school. Cassie asks him for a lift since she’s a senior at the same school. She’s chatty. He’s reserved. Despite their differences, a connection is made.

Cassie is studious. Her father Joseph (Lukas Haas, bringing an appropriately odd energy to the proceedings) is her English teacher. The two of them strangely eat lunch together in the cafeteria. Looking to sow some wild oats and having heard Daniel say he has a preliminary interview for the Marines in Nashville, Tenn., Cassie asks if she can return the favor and give him a ride there. Daniel rejects the offer, but counters with taking her there on his motorcycle. The friend Cassie was supposed to visit at Vanderbilt University is otherwise preoccupied, so she and Daniel spend the entire weekend together. Their connection deepens.

Upon her return, Joseph and Cassie’s mother Rose (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) forbid their daughter from seeing Daniel again. Perhaps it’s their age difference (she’s 18; he’s 24)? Perhaps it’s that she’s white and he’s black? Perhaps it’s his criminal record? Perhaps it’s something else entirely?

“The Violent Heart” is melodramatic as all get-out. It has twists and turns and appropriately enough concludes violently. It’s cheese, but well-performed cheese. This is both a slight and a credit to writer/director Kerem Sanga. He coaxes two good, restrained performances out of lead actors Adepo and Van Patten. It probably also helped that I liked each of these performers coming into the film. Adepo made quite the impression in “Fences” and “Overlord” and on HBO’s “Watchmen;” Van Patten – who reads like a less-weird Shailene Woodley – certainly charmed as Adam Sandler’s character’s daughter in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories.” “The Violent Heart” if nothing else, further cements these folks as two talents to watch.

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