They’re kids — hookers, pimps and thieves adrift on the streets of Seattle. Mary Ellen Mark captured them in a piercing photo essay for Life that inspired the Oscar-nominated 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” filmed by her husband, Martin Bell.
American Heart is Bell’s feature debut as a director; Mark serves as associate producer. With screenwriter Peter Silverman and actor-producer Jeff Bridges, they’ve made that street scene the backdrop for the searing story of an alienated father and son. Some immediacy is forfeited as raw fact gives way to earnest fiction, but it’s hard not to be moved by the torment on view.
Bridges plays the just-paroled Jack Kelson; he’s looking for a job, not the son he left behind. But in walks Nick (Edward Furlong of Terminator 2, determined to cling to his hard-case old man. They move into a fleabag and form an awkward truce. Jack washes windows and tries to get laid by Charlotte (Lucinda Jenney), the cabdriver who wrote him letters in prison.
Nick pushes to become a part of Jack’s dream of finding a new life. But mostly Nick hangs with the street kids, especially Molly (Tracey Kapisky), a child prostitute destined for the grind house where her mother strips for droolers. Through the riveting performances of Bridges and Furlong, we see Jack soften and Nick grow callous until love becomes their only common ground. This film shows what gets lost in a world of broken families and promises.