Judge Neal Solon thinks this true-life drama is resoundingly average. Not bad, just not great.
"The American dream that became a Holy Nightmare."
Heart of the Beholder is based on the true-life experiences of its writer and director, Ken Tipton. The names have been changed, for some reason or another, but Heart of the Beholder tells the story of Mike Howard (Matt Letscher, Identity) who, in 1981, opens Saint Louis's first VHS rental store with his wife Diane (Sarah Brown, Cold Case, V.R. Troopers). They call the store Video Library. Business is slow at first, but with hard work, dedication, and a little bit of luck, the Howards build their business into a successful chain.
As Video Library becomes increasingly visible, they begin to draw the wrong kind of attention. Video Library stores are the only rental outlets in Saint Louis to stock Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. As a result, the Howards find their business the target of a boycott, and their family the target of a smear campaign run by a conservative religious group called the Citizens for Decency. The attacks are personal, and even criminal, and irreparable damage is done to the business and the family. Ultimately, the Howards will lose control of the company in which they invested so much time and energy, but they have no intention of going down without a fight.
I must admit, Heart of the Beholder surprised me. When I pop in a self-released "indie film," I prepare myself to be forgiving in the acting department, and I certainly don't expect to see actors that I recognize. It's sad, but true. Here, however, lowered expectations weren't necessary. The acting in this film is solid throughout. There are only a couple of overwrought moments, and each comes from a bit player, rather than from one of the well-acted central characters.
Many of the main actors are familiar from the television world. You may recognize Michael Dorn from Star Trek: The Next Generation, Greg Germann from Ally McBeal, or Tony Todd from Candyman. What's great is that none of these actors is linked instantly and inextricably with the role he played on television—Michael Dorn would be, were it not for the fact that he is not wearing his Worf mask and makeup—yet their acting experience obviously makes the film a better one.
The film itself is most compelling because the viewer knows that it is based on a true story. Were Heart of the Beholder not a true story, the film would be less effective. The screenplay is well suited to the purpose of retelling real-life events, more or less as they happened. It fails, however, to create any empathy for Mike Howard and his wife. No emotional connection is established early on, so as they move through their series of trials, the viewer is disinclined to care. The only empathy that does develop comes from the lingering fact that these things really happened to the guy who penned this film. Without that context, the film becomes a series of events rather than an emotional journey.
As such, the extra features on a DVD presentation of Heart of the Beholder would seem especially important. Those included on this disc manage both to fulfill the need for context and to be underwhelming. There are a couple of promotional, "behind the scenes" pieces about the film, but both seem to be centered on the same series of interviews, which are also included separately in the extra features. These interviews are brief, but informative. Unfortunately, they are used so liberally in the "behind the scenes" featurettes that they quickly become redundant, and watching the separate interviews gleans little new information. Also included on the disc are seven deleted scenes of mixed quality.
Their repetitiveness and their sparseness aside, the supplements are enlightening, because they convey the drama involved in the process of making and financing Heart of the Beholder. It was a battle to get this film made, and those who made it receive threats to this day. As far as the technical presentation, Heart of the Beholder looks and sounds as good as would be expected for a film of its kind. Nothing fancy, but solid all around.
It is not surprising that in one of the interviews with director Ken Tipton, Tipton reveals Heart of the Beholder was originally set to be a television "movie of the week." With its reliance on the "true story" at its core, it's easy to imagine it succeeding as such. As an attempt to make money in theaters or in the home video market, however, its success is far less certain. If you're a fan or a supporter of "true stories" in the "movie of the week" vein, it's worth checking out. It is an interesting recounting of censorship and scandal. Compelling storytelling, however, it is not.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Catchlight Films
• Behind the Scenes of Heart of the Beholder Volumes 1 and 2
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