It doesn’t matter how expensive, inexpensive, fancy, or plain a movie might be. Does it have a good story, with characters you care about, and has it been crafted with intelligence and an eye to accomplish the goals that it has set out for itself? Those are the questions I tend to ask myself when viewing cinema, and after watching Damian Lahey’s warmhearted yet melancholy holiday drama, The Heroes of Arvine Place, I was reminded how some of the better items arrive in smaller packages. Lahey is an indie movie specialist, with various award-winning short films under his belt, while 2014’s The Heroes of Arvine Place was his second feature film; let’s hope that we don’t have to wait much longer for his next effort. Lahey’s natural filmmaking instincts are apparent, from his use of space within the frame, to his penchant for believable dialogue, and a story that feels organic, and at times, sadly all-too-believable.
Set in Jacksonville, Florida around the time of the Christmas holiday, the narrative centers on a nearly down-and-out single dad who is trying to make ends meet for his two young daughters. Still reeling for the recent death of his wife, Kevin Hedges, played by the excellent Cullen Moss, is a man at a mental and spiritual crossroads; how can he keep everything afloat when so much seems so far out of reach? A struggling children’s author, Kevin is, way deep down, a good dad and a good guy, so it’s a bummer to see him rely on so many other people in order for him to call the day a success. He’s entered his newest book into a competition which might provide a financial leg-up, and wouldn’t you know it, but a new romantic possibility might be lurking around the corner. But The Heroes of Arvine Place is more about a particular type of person who is learning as they experience, rather than contrived plotting and needless distraction. When people don’t have all the answers to their problems, they can find themselves in situations beyond their grasp or control, and they have a tendency to get desperate, acting in ways that they might not benefit from in the long run. The Heroes of Arvine Place looks at exactly this idea, and does so with humor, pathos, and a believable sense of the here and now.
Lahey smartly juxtaposes the expected wintry holiday vibe with the sticky-heat of the American south, generating some nice visual humor out of his choices in locations and Jon Bosworth’s art-direction, while cinematographer Tarina Van Den Driessche shoots in unfussy and intimate set-ups, stressing people and their natural reactions over anything unnecessarily gussied-up. Craig Moorhead’s smooth editing keeps a fast but never frenetic pace to the 75 minute runtime; short and sweet is the name of the game, here. But it’s all in the writing with this one, as Lahey’s script sensitively observes a family in a unique form of stasis, with rational questions being explored by the two precocious but never annoying daughters, who, like most kids, are just interested in the life that’s going on around them, whether they understand everything or not. It’s in these smaller, more emotional moments that The Heroes of Arvine Place truly finds its place as a piece of micro-budget but maximum-heart cinema.