In a week of good art film screenings (November, due later this summer, and Yes, opening in a couple of weeks), Heights was easy to overlook. The other two have gimmicks that you can latch on to, whereas Heights is a more straightforward drama. Nevertheless, Heights has resonance and shelf life. It has great acting, interesting characters, and a situation that most creative people will face in their lifetimes.
Artists and Models
R for language, sexuality, nudity
Heights follows five New Yorkers over the course of a day. It opens with a well-known stage and screen actress, Diana Lane (Glenn Close), exhorting her students to feel the passion in Shakespeare. She ends her class with “for God’s sake take a risk this weekend.” It is advice that everyone in the movie seems to follow, whether they were in her class or not.
Her daughter Isabel is an aspiring photographer, played by Elizabeth Banks who is gorgeous and blonde. She’s engaged to a handsome young lawyer. To be honest, it’s hard to feel sorry for this creature of beauty and privilege, but we are supposed to sympathize with her. She is not entirely happy with her work as a photographer (it’s mostly portraits and weddings at this point), and she seems to be settling for a marriage that will cost her more compromises than it will him.
Her fiancé is being tracked down by Peter (John Light), the current lover of a great photographer whose biography he is writing. He is tracking down all of the photographer’s previous models — male nudes all of them. Judging from the interviews with the other models, our young lawyer probably slept with the male photographer when the pictures were made. Clearly, he has never told Isabel.
Meanwhile, Diana takes a shine to Alec, a young actor (Jesse Bradford) auditioning for a part. She invites him to watch her afternoon rehearsal and to come to her party that night. He’s a talented, hard-working actor, but he might be too cautious to make it in New York; he nearly turns down the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to schmooze with the world-famous actress because he “has plans.”
Well Written, Well Rounded
The movie is good at illustrating a truism about a career in the arts — that you can’t have one as a day job. You have to throw your whole life into it, whether you’re an actor or a photographer (or, by extension, any other type of artist). Heights seems to extend that sentiment to relationships as well; and when career and relationship both demand your full attention, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to keep both.
The movie benefits from great performances all around. Glenn Close stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast. That’s partly because her character is written that way. But it’s seems to be true in the real world. Close really does have the experience and fame that these young actors probably dream of. Close still lets some vulnerability come through. After all, chasing actors half her age hints at a certain insecurity. And when her character uses her talent and fame to win arguments with her daughter, a certain competitive childishness slips through. It’s a wonderfully subtle performance that makes the role so much more than it might have been.
Of the young cast, Bradford and Banks (playing Alec and Isabel) stand out. Again, it helps that their characters are so well written and well rounded. I found myself days after the movie identifying with Alec’s dilemma: career or personal life. And although I had a hard time sympathizing with Isabel — she has more prospects, money, and connections in her mid-twenties than I ever dreamed of — I found myself thinking about her after the movie, realizing just how badly people had treated her, and how it might have destroyed her innocence.
So although it took longer for Heights to sink in than most other movies, it seems to have sunk in deeper. Maybe the story of struggling artists resonates with me personally; maybe it won’t work as well for you. But Heights seems to have captured an uncertain time in the life of any artist, and done it so honestly and sympathetically that it’s hard to stop thinking about what the future might bring.