Roberto Minervini’s Stop the Pounding Heart belongs to a distinct genus of drama, films that seem to only flirt with familiar narrative constructs in lieu of catching the beauty of the everyday on the fly. Those familiar with the films of Nicolas Pereda and Lisandro Alonso will no doubt see similarities. And like those directors, Mivervini evokes a quiet naturalness to match the unassuming beauty of his images by utilizing non-professional performers, such as teenagers Sara Carlson and Colby Trichell, who’ve both appeared in the writer-director’s previous features. Their characters, barely altered versions of themselves, are the two most prominent players in a love triangle that emerges in the rural backwoods of Waller, Texas, but Minervini’s focus tilts toward bigger themes of femininity, theology, and domesticity rather than scintillation.
The faint flirtations and sexual tension between Sara and Colby is evident early in the film, but are clearly fleeting long before Colby, an amateur rodeo man, gets a gander at Tayler (Tayler LaFlash), a talented fellow bull rider. Minervini catches the intimate action of Colby’s life, dominated by guns, backyard wrestling, and riding practice, among other “masculine” activities, none of which interests Sara, despite her primal attraction to him. But the writer-director is more interested in how Sara’s home life, which revolves around her family’s goat farm and her father’s strident Christianity, is questioned and reformed through her interactions with Colby and her inability to fully submit to the constructs of faith. Indeed, at the center of Stop the Pounding Heart is the struggle that’s born by both raising strong, independent young women and teaching them to adhere to a faith that clearly values them less than their male counterparts.
Minervini has created a moving portrait of feminism born out of hard work and intuitiveness, but he never belittles or condescends to the faithful. Sara’s mother homeschools Sara and her sisters, and also leads a bible study that conjures up fascinating discussion and, eventually, dissent, when Sara’s sisters criticize her intentions to never marry. Other than this confrontation, spirituality isn’t shown to breed any cruelty or violence; its tenants are just incongruous to the life that Sara has in mind for herself.
The film ends with Sara tearfully admitting to her mother that she doesn’t know how to be a “good Christian” and, in hindsight, that questioning seems to hang over the entire movie. Minervini cares about that doubt and gives his full empathy to Sara’s struggle with coming to an answer she can accept. Her trepidation over indulging Colby’s advances is no doubt a byproduct of her uncertainty, and Minervini, though limited in his scope and occasionally too on the nose when it comes to his thematic concerns, allows for a concentrated review of the full emotional repercussions of Sara’s respectful and eminently respectable rebellion.