Out of all the submissions that I have had the pleasure to review for this series, this film is very close to my heart (no pun intended).
I knew beforehand that the movie Texas Heart was shot mainly in Mississippi, but I did not know where. Imagine my surprise when the first shot small town “Juniper, Texas,” turned out to be from the viewpoint of the small gravel drive behind the oldest standing structure in Tallahatchie County, Mississippi—the ruinous remains of the old Lambfish Lumber Company Store in the city of Charleston. I rubbed my eyes. I thought I must be just projecting my own experience onto what I was seeing, and rewound it to see if I was just imagining things. And there it was again. I was not just seeing things. I had no idea that the majority of this movie was filmed in the town of Charleston…the closest thing to a “town” that I had growing up on a farm about twelve miles outside of Charleston. Charleston is literally where the Delta meets the Hills—no matter what they say at the Peabody in Memphis–and it is exactly what writers Daniel Blake Smith and Nick Field must have had in mind when writing the screenplay for Texas Heart.
The Juniper, Texas, of Smith’s creation is a small Southern town that might as well have been written about Charleston, or any other small town in the South—where football stars are the kings who get all the girls, where outsiders are greeted with open arms to their faces but not without a great deal of suspicion (both to their faces, and especially behind their backs), and a secretive and protective nature to the people that is almost tribe-like—making it a perfect place to get away with murder—especially if the suspect happens to be the town football star.
Texas Heart is reminiscent of a good John Grisham novel. This suspense-filled whodunit weaves a tale of mystery and intrigue, exploring the complexity of the small-town Southern mentality and creating a cuttingly accurate depiction of that deceptively simple place. The cast is a virtual who’s-who of up-and-coming character actors from North Mississippi. There are only a few big-name Hollywood actors in the cast, giving the film an authenticity that is lost in most Grisham novels put to film—or any Hollywood-made film about the South that does not cast authentic Southerners. “It takes one to know one” is a good way of explaining how hard it is to accurately portray the small-town South without creating a farce of it.
Daniel Blake Smith was born and raised in Wolf City, Texas, a town in north Texas with a population of 1,566, according to the 2000 census. It is no surprise that director Mark David was successful in bringing to the screen an accurate depiction of small-town Southern U.S.A. created by Smith in the screenplay for Texas Heart while filming on location in Charleston (population 2,198 at the time of the 2000 census). Equally important to that success are the spectacular performances from the cast of Texas Heart, heavily-laden with sho-nuf Southerners.
The movie opens with Peter Franklin, played by Erik Fellows, losing in a Los Angeles courtroom as he is defending the son of a powerful mob-like family, the head of which (“Mrs. Smith”) is played by the Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street, Dumb & Dumber, The Insidious Trilogy, The Signal). Smith immediately instructs her henchmen to kill Peter, causing Peter to go on the lamb. In this first scene, we see local artist John Allison, son of blues legend Mose Allison (from Tippo, Mississippi, in rural Tallahatchie County), playing the part of the Prosecutor. (Look for John’s film ‘Mo Bout Joe at this year’s Oxford Film Festival—a short documentary film about the amazing life and art of the non-traditional painter Joe Wren from rural Tallahatchie County—also featuring HottyToddy.com’s owner Ed Meek!)
Peter flees to the “backwoods” town of Juniper, Texas, creating a new identity as “Frank,” a writer who is doing research for a book. “Frank” sticks out like a sore thumb in a town like Juniper, and from his first encounter with the locals, there is a shadow of suspicion cast upon him. “Lanny” and “Betty” (played by Johnny and Susan McPhail) are Frank’s neighbors with whom he becomes acquainted when the couple come by (like good Southern neighbors do) offering him one of Betty’s famous pies as a welcoming gift. Betty is not only famous for her pie-making…Betty also knows all the dirt on everyone in town.
When Juniper homecoming queen “Allison” (played by Daniela Bobadilla) goes missing on the night of her crowning, the whole town is thrown into an uproar. Thus ensues a frenzied search for any sign of her, and her assumed killer. Everyone is a suspect—her quarterback boyfriend, the football star “Roy” (played by Jared Abrahamson); his mentally challenged brother “Tiger” (played by Kam Dabrowski); Allison’s own father, Carl (played by John Savage of The Deer Hunter); and even “Frank” himself. Ultimately, Tiger is charged with the murder of Allison even though there is no body found, and the evidence against him is circumstantial.
Peter (a.k.a. “Frank”) finds it impossible to believe that Tiger could be capable of such a heinous act, and takes it upon himself to aid in Tiger’s defense as he is brought to trial for the murder of the missing girl—“Frank” trying his best not to blow his cover. Local law enforcement does not share in Frank’s belief concerning Tiger’s innocence, and a witch-hunt is launched by Sheriff Dobbs (played by Johnny Dowers), and Deputy Tim Cash (played by Oxford, Mississippi’s own Rhes Low).
Dowers and Low are spot-on in their performances as purveyors of small town justice. Their performances are so authentic, together they create an “Abbot and Costello”-like camaraderie that brings humor to an otherwise intensely serious film, and it works. (I can safely say this with confidence, because I practically grew up in the actual world of law enforcement in Tallahatchie County—my grandfather was the Sheriff there for most of my youth.) It takes true artistry to capture the reality of these peoples’ world and not demean the characters at the same time. We are not dumb, we are just different.
Bill Luckett (real-life attorney, current Mayor of Clarksdale, Mississippi, and co-owner of the famed blues club Ground Zero with Morgan Freeman) presides over the murder trial against Tiger in his very convincing role as “Judge Westcott.” Picking Bill Luckett to play Judge Westcott is one of the many instrumental decisions Casting Director Adrienne Stern made while compiling the amazing supporting cast for this film. Johnny and Susan McPhail’s performances are the best in the movie—rivaled only by John Savage as Allison’s alcoholic father, or Daniela Bobadilla’s portrayal of Allison as the homecoming queen who can’t wait to “get out” of the trap that is her small-town existence (especially considering that Miss Bobadilla is from Mexico City, Mexico).
Other excellent choices by Stern include Rebecca Jernigan as “Geraldine” (The Client, Ode to Billy Joe), Michael LaCour as “Louie,” one of the hit men chasing after Peter (LaCour is from Jackson, Tennessee), and Richard Jackson as “Joe Ralph,” the owner of the town watering hole where, of course, all the good gossip gets told (Richard Jackson is also a Southerner…a native of Ballinger, Texas).
Texas Heart will keep you guessing from start to finish—right up to its shocker of an ending. The exceptional story written by Daniel Blake Smith and especially the performances highlighted in this article, are two of the many reasons to see this film. And if you are from Tallahatchie County or are familiar with Charleston at all, you absolutely must see this film. It is no surprise that Texas Heart won the prestigious “Award of Merit for Feature Films” from the Accolade Global Film Competition in 2015, as well as the “Jury Award” for Best Feature Film at this years’ Albuquerque Film Festival.
Texas Heart is showing at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday, February 20 at the Thirteenth Annual Oxford Film Festival in the Malco Oxford Studio Cinema (1111 Jackson Ave. W.) . For a full schedule of all films showing at this year’s festival, please visit the official schedule here. See you there!”
Suanne Strider is a writer, editor, photographer, promoter and paralegal from Tallahatchie County, in the Mississippi Delta. She also serves as a booking agent and philanthropist. Suanne lives in Oxford and has three beautiful children–daughter Mimi (the oldest); and Drake and Jess, who are twins (Drake being older by one minute). She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.