Heaven Burns (2010): Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Summertime Suburbia

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Poster of Justin Beckenheimer's Heaven Burns

I do not envy the hangover years of the guideless crew of characters of Stratatek Studios' Heaven Burns. Released in 2010 garnering the Best Picture nomination, Best Actor win, and nabbing 2nd Place in Best Actress at the Action on Film International Film Festival, it is now available for streaming on Amazon Video.

This is a story, by the official synopsis, of “a young man as he attempts to navigate first love in a backdrop of suburban adolescent drug addiction”. And the movie is just that; a convoluted mess of days splattered throughout the toke-and-binge subculture of suburban Maryland. The feature-length directorial debut of Justin Beckenheimer is a film of unique vision. There are many elements of Heaven Burns that truly excel in their execution. This lends a strong exuding sense of craftsmanship by well-skilled storytellers, though there are several recurring facets that hurt the production, leaving its ending a little middling.

First and foremost, the film’s cast of characters are played aptly by their respective actors. And I mean the whole of the cast. There isn’t a cast member phoning in their performance and each interaction as the film progresses reveals an easy chemistry. This, in turn, adds a further sense of validity to the experience they go through. The mistakes seem genuine and the regret significant, just as the incidental nature of many of these interactions seem natural and far from forced and rather funny.

However, some of the minor characters, whether by the screenplay’s design or by the choice of the performers, seem a little too mannerist, too one-note, to be believable. This is not necessarily because they are, nor is it the entirety of their screen time. But as compared with the toned down performances by the lead Ryan (Clayton Stocker Myers), and his mother Cheryl (Cheryl Scungio), when the characters are playing up the flamboyant aspects of the drama, it seems more forced. Having said that, the supporting actors are quite excellent bringing about the aimless boredom of suburban teenagers with ready access to drugs, as well as the befuddled parents and neighbors who are along for the ride, or encourage the behavior with their own.

Whitney Nielsen plays Kat, our lead female character opposite Ryan. And just as Myers offers an introverted and restrained performance as someone who reluctantly steps into this vortex of a world, Kat is our opposite. I would not go so far as to say she is the antagonist of the story, as none of the characters are striving to undo the goals and efforts of Ryan. But she is someone who has been long enveloped in this binge-filled world, and drags Ryan along for the ride. Much of the first half of the film her performance is reminiscent of Elisha Cuthbert in The Girl Next Door (2004) which then collides with Erika Christensen from Traffic (2000). This is an explosively volatile role, and Nielsen plays it in spades. At first it gave an impression of contrivance due to the circumstances of the change, but that quickly gave way to a brand new character dynamic that meets its goals with a flourish of adrenaline and emotion.

With such an interesting array of characters, the story doesn’t follow a particular plot until we reach the halfway mark. The opening scenes meander along through summer heat, from one interaction to another, much like the film’s subjects, without much direction or plot. One scene may seem unnecessary, but a later scene will harken back with subtle prods relaying its actual importance. It could be argued that the movie saunters along as it does in these moments because it reflects the young adult life in these neighborhoods: aimless and searching for a good time. These choices echo strongly along the lines of Larry Clark’s Wassup Rockers (2005) and Vin Diesel’s Strays (1997).

And speaking of the midpoint of the movie, this is when Heaven Burns hits its stride. The movie gets into a spiral which makes the remaining duration is so effective in our experience with Ryan that it’s an absolute torture to watch. The story is something familiar, and has been done before. This does not mean the movie is ineffective, because the story told is so relatable and tragic in many shades that it’s hard not to empathize with the main character even if you are repelled by his actions.

However, even in light of the accomplishments of the cast and the storycraft of Beckenheimer, there are recurring issues with the film that do bog down the experience. Namely, the editing is disjointed and muddled. Some scenes are pieced together with such rapid cuts that the effect is dizzying, when the scene does not call for such intercutting to take place. This is then contrasted with very long takes that sometimes cover entire scenes. It seems as if the filmmakers are trying to rush to wherever they want to spend the most time, then they put on the breaks a little too hard.

That, paired with the cinematography makes for a slightly frustrating sit at times. This is due to most shots being composed with overly tight framing and shallow focus. This results in many scenes without much situational awareness, which is contrasted heavily to the opening and closing of the movie which is much wider and encompassing. Whether this pairing of style and rhythm is by intention or not, an intense claustrophobia results for almost the whole runtime.

The audience experiences much of this movie from over the shoulders of its cast. This at first is intriguing and it does work throughout many scenes, other times not so much. It sort of feels like “here we go again, another car ride”, even though the interactions are interesting and furthers the story. But the limitations of the visual scope can really be felt in these scenes where it can come across as the filmmakers trying to hide details rather than extenuating them.

The final element that almost undid the film was actually the ending redemption scenes. They come along expected, but the exposition that is forced into such a brief succession ties things together too nicely. With a film experience so focused on many of the harsh realities of drug abuse and reckless abandon, the last sequence seems too storybook to seem like an appropriate ending to this particular story. However, it does not negate the rest of the film, so in that regard, it is altogether effective.

Ultimately Heaven Burns is a work that provides a unique perspective into a well-worn character study that aches with a profound sadness. This sadness however offers silver linings of melancholy hope that, while we can succumb to the more cynical and hedonistic aspects of our nature, we always have the capacity to return and regain ourselves in the face of any external pain or inner frustration.

FINAL RATING: ★★★ ½ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Also Published on Screen Anarchy.

Written by Matthew Roe. Published: February 19, 2017

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