A young mortician will give his heart away to find true love.
Stephen W. Martin
Stephen W. Martin
Valin Shinyei as Young Milton Mulberry
Dalila Bela as Young Lola LIttleton
Thomas Orr-Loney as Old Milton Mulberry
Nancy Bell as Old Lola Littleton
Lovingly combine the whimsical work of Tim Burton with bits of the dark art of Edward Gorey and throw in some old-fashioned Bruce Lee action – oh, and don’t forget, at the heart — well, a great big ol’ heart — and you have the festival darling from the past year, Stephen W. Martin’s Dead Hearts.
I had the pleasure of seeing this at multiple festivals over the past year, and even enjoyed an intimate showing with writer/director Stephen W. Martin himself. And I can say this, it just gets better with each viewing.
Bullied at school and something of a social outcast, Milton Mulberry is a strange young fellow, brought up in the family business – funerals. One day he falls in love with a little blind girl (and martial arts master) named Lola Littleton. The feeling is mutual. But sadly, this friendship and deepening love will come to an end when Lola is forced to move away. But this distance, as well as a few other mountain-high obstacles, will not keep this love from blossoming and lasting forever.
Packed with terrific performances — specifically from Valin Shinyei as young Milton and Delila Bela as young Lola — Dead Hearts is a treasure trove of acting youth. Of note is one particularly emotional scene involving Lola. I’m a sucker for well-acted crying scenes, and the power which Bela brings to young Lola in this difficult acting beat is remarkable. Everytime I’ve seen the film — dammit, this moment gets me teary-eyed. And with her green age, you’ll have to wonder where her career (she’s already got quite a resume) goes from here. As Milton, Shinyei (also with a lengthy resume) brings a gravitas far beyond his years — which clearly the character calls for. These “adult” sensibilities and matter-of-fact strengths are also impressive from such a young kid. But the big deal here, is that we fall in love with their falling in love. For two kids, we believe and root for this special connection. As dark as the film can be, you’ll have more than a few moments of “awwwwwww” as their love stands the test of time. I’ve got something in my eye…
But out-impressing the genuine performances (not an easy thing to do) are the many technical achievements. With kooky camera angles, swift editing, a delicious score (which gets my chin to quivering — particularly in the end) and even some deliciously fantastic animation (straight out of Henry Selick’s A Nightmare Before Christmas), Dead Hearts won over me, all of the audiences with whom I screened, and I’m certain it will forever warm your heart as well.
You’ll note that I’m offering up a perfect score for Dead Hearts. If you’re one of my regular readers (assuming I have any) those aren’t easy to come by. But when a heartfelt gem like this can move you and impress you — over and over — there’s simply no reason to deny this cinematic perfection those most elusive “highest marks”.
With countless “Official Selection” designations and far too many awards to tally, Dead Hearts is a true short film treasure. Writer/director Stephen W. Martin is definitely an artist to keep an eye on. If this 16-minute short is any indication of his future filmmaking prowess, we’ve got an honest-to-goodness cinematic master on our hands. Overstating it? Nope.
There will come a time when the film will end its lengthy (legendary?) festival run, and become available for your hungry eyes to behold. Don’t miss it when it does. Oh, and the film has zombies. So there’s that.