Heading Home: Maria Heritier’s Melodrama Set during Vietnam

As co-writer and director, Maria Heritier shows an impressive measure of taste in her feature debut, Heading Home, a sensitive drama about the unique friendship between a black bus-driver and a white girl, set against the background of the Vietnam War.

Static and basically confined to one setting, pic doesn’t hold much prospect for theatrical release, though it could have a life on TV and cable, which will serve as useful calling card to its rising filmmaker.

Set in the spring of 1970, at the height of the Anti-Vietnam war movement, tale introduces Horace Jones (Frankie Faison), a middle-aged bus driver, haunted by guilt and anger over his inability to prevent his son Willie (Seth Gilliam) from joining the war. In flashbacks we learn that Willie, who is now missing in action, was a bright college kid who didn’t have to go to Vietnam, but was motivated by his conscientious sense of duty.

Driving his bus to an anti-war demonstration in Washington, Horace meets Kate Polanski (Margaret Welsh), a 17-year-old passenger, who’s going to the capital for personal rather than political reasons, needing to come to terms with her disintegrating family. Pushing 40 and facing menopause, her mom (Allison Janney) spends most of her time in bed or on telephone discussing sex or cooking, as a result of her bring rejected by her boozy, adulterous hubby (Tom Tammi).

The entire action takes place on the bus over the course of one fateful night, which provides an occasion for two very different individuals to open up, reveal secrets and overcome fears. Drama is based on the premise that under certain conditions, people who are otherwise unlikely to meet–or socialize–tend to disclose their most intimate anxieties.

It soon becomes clear that Kate’s sheltered life has never allowed her to meet–let alone get to know–a black person. Aware of latent racist biases–and possible ignorance–Horace works doubly hard to show his genuine concern for Kate, ending up more as a surrogate-father figure than a friend.

Confined to one setting, pic gets progressively tedious, though for most of the time co-scripters Heritier and McKim show a good ear for fluent, realistic dialogue. Only exception is the caricature-like portrayal of Kate’s parents, though they are meant to be perceived from her subjective P.O.V. Flashbacks of Horace and Kate’s respective personal lives break the story’s dreariness, but don’t add much insight to what’s already been said.

The central performances in this two-character drama help alleviate the tedium that descends on the film after its first half an hour. As the upwardly mobile black, who sacrificed a lot so that his son would get formal education, Faison renders a compelling performance. Even better is Welsh as Kate, playing a classic American role of a sensitive teenager/aspiring writer. Welsh’s delicate portrait actually shows how such a girl would channel her personal frustrations into a creative career.

Tech credits, particularly Michael Slovis’ lensing, which resourcefully uses lighting to highlight the changing tone of the story, all of which take place on a bus, are impressive considering the low budget.