Recently featured at Edinburgh International Film Festival, My Feral Heart is an exciting and surprising new film from director Jane Gull and writer Duncan Paveling. Sandra Alland reviews.
My jaw is clenched when the lights dim.
Though Edinburgh’s Odeon has level access, people who can’t climb stairs must sit in the front row where the sound is blasting, and where most seats have restricted view because of a raised (and inaccessible) stage built to welcome nondisabled filmmakers for Q&As.
My Feral Heart’s publicity materials don’t name the lead actor with Down Syndrome, and use the catchphrase ‘We’re Not So Different’ – taken from a line spoken by a nondisabled person to a disabled person. Although the sentiment is positive, it grates similarly to ‘I don’t see you as disabled.’
But when the film starts, my mind moves away from the predictable lack of captions, and even the condescension of erasing difference. As soon as Steven Brandon comes onscreen, I’m glued to the actor’s every word and emotion.
My Feral Heart opens with Luke (Brandon) shaving and making breakfast, then feeding his mother (Eileen Pollock) in bed. He corrects her gently but firmly when she doesn’t recognise him, takes away the plates, does the shopping, and comes back to do the washing up and bathe her. Luke puts on a record and they dance, then after some telly he puts her to bed. Brandon and Pollock both deliver emotionally nuanced performances, and Brandon is funny as hell.
The opening scenes of this film are enough to recommend it. There’s nothing remarkable about a person with Down Syndrome being independent, caring for someone else, or having ace senses of rhythm and humour. But there’s everything remarkable about a film that so respectfully centres a learning-disabled character in its writing, casting and direction.
My Feral Heart is the realistic tale of Luke’s life, and the main plot device is a sudden cataclysmic change. Luke’s mother dies, and we follow the unsurprising and frustrating results of him immediately being forced into a care home he’s not allowed to leave. Luke sneaks out and is discovered by Pete, a grieving young heir doing community service at the home. Pete doesn’t snitch, and their friendship blossoms.
Duncan Paveling’s dialogue is well-written and fluid; except for a jarring moment where an attempt at humourous limerick involving race and genitals falls flat, his banter is spot on. Will Rastall plays the troubled, privileged and fox-hunt-saboteuring Pete with ease and humour. And Brandon skillfully portrays Luke’s grief and anxiety at losing his mother, home and independence – and his rage at his imposed surroundings. His acting is so excellent that the piano and strings of Barrington Pheloung’s beautiful soundtrack seem overwrought, like they are telling us to feel something after Brandon has already taken us there.
An intriguing plot runs parallel to the realistic story of Luke’s new life: that of him finding ‘The Girl’ (Pixie Le Knot). At first it seems Luke finds a dying fox that bites him, but later he carries a person to a barn to nurse her. We could be watching a girl acting like a fox, a fox that Luke thinks is a girl, or some kind of fox-girl spirit.
This potentially magical storyline becomes too confusing to meld with the reality of the other characters, and ultimately doesn’t work. Luke steals clothes for The Girl, and Eve the care-worker (Shana Swash) sees her at the end, but fox-hounds sniff her out and she’s hairy and when she screams people hear foxes. So there are issues with both her being real (why on earth is there a feral girl in the English countryside and what does that add to this story?) or a vision/hallucination (why does an otherwise down-to-earth and practical character like Luke suddenly believe a fox is a weird girl, and why does someone else see her?). Jane Gull’s direction is too fuzzy in these scenes; I prefer open-ended plots to make sense, even if it’s surreal sense.
But it hardly matters that the writer’s imaginative scenario fizzles a bit; overall the plot takes us to admirable and fascinating places. My Feral Heart is a compelling and gorgeously-shot film with an absolutely stunning performance by Steven Brandon. Even from the front row.