Billy Woodberry’s 1984 film Bless Their Little Hearts is one of the landmark films of the L.A. Rebellion, a movement originating at the UCLA film school. Woodberry and Hearts cinematographer Charles Burnett were major players in the movement, which lasted from the late 1960s to the early 1990s (although some filmmakers associated with the movement, including Woodberry, are still active).
The movement takes a lot of notes from Italian neo-realism; a documentary-like look, a meandering editing style centered around vignettes and naturalistic performances from actors are all hallmarks of the movement.
Hearts follows the Banks family, specifically patriarch Charlie and his wife Andais, as they struggle to stay afloat in 1980s Los Angeles. The film functions more like an examination of a slice of life than a true narrative; the film often fades to black, fading back in with a soul tune to another part of the Banks’ life.
Sometimes these sections are short, seemingly unrelated to the larger arc of Charlie and Andais’s marriage. Other times these sections are longer, but concise. They still have a rhythm, though, and it’s clear where the “climax” of the film falls.
In that scene, Woodberry strikes the balance between the documentary-like style of the L.A. Rebellion and using the more artful side of cinema to create something that’s going to stun an audience.
And that’s a hard balance to strike, especially with a film like this. The whole film has a very rough feeling to it. It’s constructed and written in such a way that the audience is less watching a film and more watching a family struggle. These characters look and feel real and relatable, for better and worse. The performances are natural, but it’s not obvious that these are actors putting on an act. Yet Woodberry and Burnett are still able to create something that stuns and makes an audience sit up in their seats and take notice.
Because it all works, even when it shouldn’t.