Being young parents is enough to drive you mad, and that’s just what happens in this quiet little indie from IFC. The story conquers new love, moving in together, getting married, meeting the family, and, finally, having a baby. And that’s just the first half hour. What follows is an unexpected, and deeply complicated, piece of a yuppie couple’s challenging life puzzle. With an intimate gaze at the cozy confines of a New York City apartment, this disturbing, sometimes muddy thriller delves into some big ideas with varying degrees of success.
As young professionals Jude and Mina settle into a new life with each other, Mina, played by the eerily convincing Alba Rohrwacher, learns that she’s pregnant. She almost immediately begins educating herself on methods for parenting, eager to be the best mother she can be. It doesn’t take long for her to conclude that the world is a too filthy, awful place for her precious cargo, and with increasing paranoia and distrust, she convinces herself that her baby must be free from all environmental contaminants. That includes outside foods, meats, electronic waves and any dirt from beyond the walls of their cramped apartment. As time goes on, she even begins to believe that her baby is so pure that he is magical – and must be kept that way at all costs. When the loving Jude, played admirably by Adam Driver, grows concerned for their ailing baby’s health, Mina’s obsessions with cleanliness, and her fight against him, only grows more dangerous and alarming.
Hungry Hearts is an adaptation of a well-reviewed, bestselling novel by Marco Franzoso. I can’t speak for the book since I haven’t read it, but the film works simply because of the actors involved. Had it not been for their devotion to these desperate characters, I’m not sure it would’ve. The script is bursting with commentary on modern life, and is earnest in its efforts to artfully undress the modern health concerns of the industrialized and urban world. The tale’s aggression also thoughtfully points at the marketing media industry’s fear mongering of parents. While it doesn’t come out and say this, one can’t help but run through the current deluge of headlines (rightfully) screaming about the horrors Monsanto, dying flocks of poisoned birds, and the dangers of GMOs. What constitutes as “safe” for our children to consume? And who regulates that, if not the parents? If parents can’t protect their children from harm, and are in fact administering it to them, what good are they?
The other big idea is mistrust for the medical industry, and perhaps in particular, anti-vaxer fanaticism. Mina is convinced that the doctors don’t know what’s best for her child, that only she knows. She refuses advice, tests, and any nutrients and medicine they offer to help her baby survive. To the detriment of her child’s health, she fights the doctors, her husband, and his mother (played by Roberta Maxwell) to the point of depravity. She truly creates a sense of horror for all involved.
During the final act, the target focuses on the flimsy and illogical laws of child protection services. When Jude and his mother essential kidnap the baby for his own good, law enforcement intervenes, granting immediate custody back the clearly unwell Mina simply because she’s demanded it. It’s harrowing when Jude and his mother realize their powerlessness against the situation.
Needless to say, there’s a lot going on in this film. Mash these big ideas with the claustrophobia of cramped, poorly lit interiors (which work surprisingly well), some very questionable and wholly unnecessary camera tricks, and perhaps one of the most awkward and out-of-place openings I might have ever witnessed, we have a bit of a mess on our hands. The out-of-place and slapdash ending only adds to the aggravation of it all. And coming in at an overly-long one hour and 53 minutes, the plodding, though never completely uninteresting, cautionary thriller ultimately loses its thrill.
This was my introduction to Alba Rohrwacher, and was surprised by her talent. I wish I could’ve focused more on the actors, to be honest. The depths Rohrwacher plunges into the mind of Mina is truly what keeps this film alive. And while Adam Driver rarely disappoints, the soft-souled, though erratic Jude is drawn more frustratingly than sympathetically. The story could’ve been whittled down to a few core ideologies and ran with them. But with all the issues, the two leads give their troubled characters a thunderous pulse despite the dreary and confusing existence they’ve been afforded.
Director Saverio Costanzo had a vision, and while the vision wasn’t realized, it is certainly appreciated. Hungry Hearts is an ambitious indie effort with a lot of, uh, heart, some truly original cinematic themes, and a cast worth noting, though ultimately not much else.