American Heart: Melodrama of Father-Son, Starring Jeff Bridges and Edward Furlong

In 1984, Martin Bell made “Streetwise,” a riveting documentary about Seattle street children that was inspired by Mary Ellen Mark’s photo-essay “Streets of the Lost.”

In “American Heart,” Bell and Mark (an accomplished photographer and Bell’s wife) have teamed up for a fictional feature about an ex-con putting his life together, once again in down-and-out Seattle. Nonetheless, the story here, co-written with Peter Silverman, is too obvious and sentimental. The filmmakers romanticize the urban underbelly in a way that undercuts the realism out of their yarn.

Jeff Bridges plays former convict Jack, who returns back to Seattle determined to go straight, a plan that is “interrupted” by the sudden appearance of his 14-year-old son Nick (Edward Furlong). Utterly ignored, Nick has been forced to fend for himself on the streets. At first, Jack resists an ex-partner’s entreaties to return to robbery and finds a job washing windows downtown.

It’s another story of a grown-up man who refuses and/or is unable to mature. As hard as he tries, Jack has trouble assuming the responsibilities of fatherhood. Jack only wants to be left alone to frolic with a good-hearted waitress and prison pen pan (Lucinda Jenney). For his part, Nick is a bright kid, but he is discouraged from going to school. Given his father’s abuse, he hangs around with other kids on the block.

However, we viewers know otherwise, because we have seen this story before. Jack dreams of sailing to Alaska and start a new life there without his son. However, In due time, as father and son begin to know each, they bond, even if at first the communication is strained and Jack is doing it grudgingly. The Alaska” fantasy soon become a joint project, with father and son both saving their pennies for their departure.

To make the proceedings less melodramatic and more colorful, Bell shows an aggregate of street types– the usual suspects of baby whores, transvestites, strippers, and pimps. However, his perspective is shallow, particularly for someone with a strong a documentary background. Only one secondary character, Maggie Welsh, stands out as the teenage tough Freddie.

Though made independently, “American Heart” is disappointingly formulaic and conventional. The determination to rebuild messed-up lives is an honorable subject, and while the yarn begins in a gritty style, it quickly devolves into a predictable father-son melodrama, only a notch above TV-Movie-of-the-Week.

Bell also throws haphazardly into the mix a crime subplot, which feels like an excuse for chases and shootings (poorly executed). When Jack loses his job, Nick, to please a girl he’s begun to fancy, is drawn into petty crime.

Jeff Bridges (who is also a co-producer) and Edward Furlong (“Terminator 2: Judgment Day”) give strong, natural, and fluent performances; highly photogenic and endowed with strong presence, Furlong is a talent to watch. But the actors can’t overcome the limitations of the hokum material and Bell’s pedestrian approach and penchant for sentimentality.


Directed by Martin Bell

Screenplay: Peter Silverman, Martin Bell, Mary Ellen Mark

Running time: 113 Minutes

Released by Triton

May 7, 1993