Food for thought about the human side of an American lifestyle too easily stereotyped.
Stop the Pounding Heart
For directors fortunate enough to have a say on how to approach their projects, there is a fundamental choice to be made. Fencing your creative spirit within a set of rules (i.e. three-act structures, inciting incidents, dramatic climaxes, and so forth) or unleashing your creative impulses to flourish in absolute free-range fashion. There’s no doubt that Italian-born Roberto Minervini chooses the latter, unstructured, approach. Perhaps it’s no coincidence, then, that Minervini was drawn to 14-year-old Sara, the “protagonist” of Stop the Pounding Heart, since she too is torn between the dichotomy of compromise and liberation. Living on a Texan goat farm, unplugged from the rapid technological advancements of bigger cities, home-schooled by intensely devout Christian parents, and sharing her childhood with 11 other siblings; Sara is bridled by a paradox of being a good Christian girl while simultaneously trying to keep balance on the hormonal precipice of womanhood.
This is a film made up of moments, not scenes. All it takes is a few quiet minutes on the Carlson farm to appreciate how utterly unfabricated and semi-documented Stop the Pounding Heart is. While the crux of the matter is Sara’s coy and flirty interactions with Colby (Colby Trichell), a boy her age from a nearby farm, whose life revolves around bull riding, the unshakable sense of something deeper persists throughout. The communities on these farms—whether their daily routines center around milking goats or practice-shooting rifles (often both)—are so ensconced in America’s Bible Belt, the smell of leather is almost palpable. There’s a key scene, and a key phrase, that reveals just how tightly bound these good-natured people are to the words of the Holy Scripture. Boys and men, Colby among them, sit and meditatively absorb the words of a local cowboy preacher, who tells them “You don’t want to be a slave to sin. You want to be a slave to God’s law.” Not being a slave to anything or anyone doesn’t seem to be an option for these people, and Sara’s internal struggle with this very notion of obligatory subservience is what gives the film’s heart its thunderous pounding.
It’s only natural for Stop the Pounding Heart to leave many viewers slightly frustrated by its anti-narrative and anti-action approach. Minervini takes the observatory method, allowing the rhythm of life to shape his story, and audiences should be aware that if they don’t want their one hour and forty minutes to be wasted, they better be prepared to engage. The director eschews formal shot compositions and slick camera movements for an intimate, hand-held, technique of following subjects around as if the camera itself was born in this setting. It allows cinematographer Diego Romero to use natural light introspectively and almost as a character-builder, exampled by a moment when Sara, on a swing, contemplates her first fleshed out conversation with Colby. It’s the innocence of youth in emotional turmoil made luminous in the most ordinary of ways.
The film’s blurring of the line between feature film and documentary (it has won awards in both categories, interestingly enough) is key to how much of an unassuming coming of age story it essentially is. And not without its own invitation for controversy. An occasion sees Sara and her sisters talking about the future, and becomes very telling when one sister jokingly says how she wishes to ride off into the sunset before confirming that, of course, she wants to get married to a guy with a ranch. Similarly, moments featuring Sara and her mom hold, in my opinion, the heaviest thematic weight. “The bible tells us that man was not created for woman, but woman was created for man.” Combine the implication behind that with the mother’s guidance on how much strength it takes to submit, and this religious notion that a girl belongs to her father before belonging to an eventual husband, and Stop the Pounding Heart evolves into a genuinely thoughtful piece of work.
Here’s a film that doesn’t rely on conventional elements to keep its subjects and messages above water. By zeroing in on a girl whose very spirit feels as fenced in as the goats she takes care of, and who can relate to a life of obedience and predetermined paths, Minervini’s own inclination for unstructured storytelling over rule-bound construction shines through, the two becoming a perfect union of style and subject. Not recommended for the passive movie-goer looking to escape life with an entertaining couple of hours, Stop the Pounding Heart slices into life itself, leaving the engaged viewer with a surprising amount of food for thought about the human side of an American lifestyle too easily stereotyped.