American cinema has a trend of being somewhat predictable. For every Dante’s Peak, you’ll always have a Volcano. For every Armageddon you’re bound to have at least one Deep Impact. And so it was after the release of Crash and its surprise win as Best Picture, that America latched on to this idea of intersecting narratives in drama. Certainly there had been ones before Crash but this technique had typically been left to the world of comedy or relegated to art house cinema, but with its introduction into mainstream society, these interwoven stories gained a certain credibility and visibility that had been missing before.
One of the many interwoven character dramas that came out of this trend is the 2005 Merchant Ivory Production, Heights. The film follows a host of characters who are all brought together in their search for something. For some characters, it’s love, for others, it’s a search for themselves, and for others, the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Still, what is perhaps most enchanting about the characters on display in these film is their utter lack of this crucial sense of self. Most of them find themselves relying on another character in order to piece together some fragmented identity that seems to have alluded them for the majority of the film. This sets Heights apart from the other intersecting dramas. Most intersecting dramas find their characters interacting on a superfluous level or through a life-changing chain of events. Heights has no pretension about its characters’ relationships with one another. The inter-connectedness of each character is a very intentional part of the film and isn’t treated as a secondary piece of the narrative as they rely on one another in their search for some semblance of happiness in an otherwise indifferent world.
Whatever it is these characters are looking for, director Chris Terrio and screenwriter Amy Fox, who adapted this from her own play, manage to createa beautifully empty world for these lost figures to inhabit. There’s such dimension to the setting of New York City, but it never pulls focus from each individual story. Rather, it seems to reflect an inner state for the character that could not otherwise be explained without sounding awkward or expositional. Viewing the setting as indicative of a given character’s emotional state adds a sort of cohesiveness between the character and his or her environment that is generally missing from most films.
Nevertheless, the true testament to all of these characters can be found in the actors and actresses that bring them to life. Glenn Close is simultaneously heartbreaking and infuriating as a neglected wife and a passive-aggressive mother. However, Elizabeth Banks, as her daughter Isabel, is absolutely intoxicating. Banks is primarily known for her comedic abilities, which alone are staggering, but the quiet intensity she was able to bring to this dramatic part was far and away one of the most memorable aspects of the film. Isabel is perhaps the most multi-faceted character of the film, constantly unsure of herself and those around her, but she never betrays that insecurity except in the brief glimpses of true vulnerability Banks brings to the character.
In the end, the interconnectedness of each character is a true testament to the writing and the direction of the film. However, it is the relationships of the characters themselves that fuels the movie. Not only with one another, but with their environment. The way the characters interact with the physical world around them is so removed in a beautifully simple way. Still, it is the acting that brings this understated character drama together so well. While some may write off the movie as slow moving, for those who appreciate a leisurely-paced interweaving drama with surprisingly genuine emotion and sincerity, Heights will not disappoint.