My Feral Heart (2016) Review
Flying under the multiplex radar, “My Feral Heart” is an independent British film exploring the story of Luke, an independent young man with Down’s syndrome who is forced to move into care home after his elderly mother dies.
Director Jane Gull is a self-confessed fan of Ken Loach and his influence is strongly felt in this gently gritty, deeply sincere story. Favouring a hand-held camera, “My Feral Heart” benefits from a pseudo-documentary feel which counterpoints nicely with a subtle but potent dusting of dreamlike whimsy. As attention grabbing as the film’s central ‘label’ might be, it’s a delightful subverting of expectations that Luke’s Down Syndrome is an initial plot driver of the story but it’s not what the film is about.
Steven Brandon delivers a superb performance as Luke in his acting debut. There’s a wonderfully knowing slyness to his performance at times and he’s perfectly matched by a mischievous directorial approach that continually elicits and then gently rebukes your assumptions, especially in a terrifically intimate opening sequence featuring Luke preparing breakfast. He’s responsible for many of the film’s best moments, displaying impressive comic timing and a wry delivery. Jane Gull knows when to keep the focus tight for maximum impact. Scenes of the minutiae of everyday life are given a poignant grandeur by virtue of the close focus, from spreading butter on toast to the buttoning of a shirt. Tight shots of hands and fingers reveal the splendour and mundane intricacy of those little points of personal care which, often unnoticed, punctuate our daily lives.
Indeed, “My Feral Heart” is a film preoccupied with personal care, not just the details and flourishes of our daily ablutions, but in a more philosophical sense the care of the person. Luke’s journey in the film is his fiercely independent streak, a desire to be the carer, not the caree. It takes an odd alliance between a compassionate and insightful care home worker, Eve (Shana Swash) and Pete (Will Rastall), an upper middle-class rebel on community service to help Luke find his way, a way to escape the restrictive burdens of the low expectations of an indifferent bureaucracy. It’s through these new friendships Luke finds the opportunity and the self-confidence to do what he’s best at, but to say anymore would be to reveal one of the film’s cleverest and most ambiguous narrative threads so I’ll say no more. Making a virtue of economy, the screenplay feels like it has excised some of the back stories and side plots in favour of a leaner narrative but it doesn’t harm the film too much and even an ending which feels more like an abrupt ‘stop’ doesn’t tarnish what has come before.
The three central cast members quickly establish a fantastic onscreen chemistry which really anchors the film and makes it easy to gloss over the one or two clunky performances that often plague low budget indie movies. But there genuinely are only one or two in a film full of small but still important background characters lending texture and authenticity to Luke’s world. “My Feral Heart” is an absorbing character-driven drama which strains at the very limits of its resources and will inevitably leave you wanting more time with each of these characters to delve into not only their back stories that brought them to where they cross paths but also the futures you’ll hope and want for them.
The love and craft of the filmmakers involved shows through on-screen and the film’s ongoing struggle to find a distributor for a proper release is a real shame as this is a real gem of a movie. It may be that the film’s vocal and passionate embracing by the Down Syndrome community has proved to be something of a double-edged sword in further – unfairly – labelling the film as a niche experience and a difficult sell to the general public. To paraphrase an oft-quoted (and rightly so) refrain: “My Feral Heart” is not a Down Syndrome film, it is a film which has Down Syndrome [in it]. It offers an affecting, emotional and ultimately uplifting look at the human condition from three very different yet simpatico perspectives. Seek it out wherever you can.