Still from 'Heartland'
Still from ‘Heartland’

Returning home after the death of her girlfriend, Lauren finds that small-town attitudes haven’t shifted much since she’s been gone.

Lauren is grieving. She has spent her days over the past months by her dying girlfriend’s side, reading to her, drawing pictures of her, talking to her – even when Nicole becomes too sick to respond. She returns to their home after Nicole’s death to find the locks changed and an eviction notice stuck to the door. Her savings have been drained while caring for Nicole, and Lauren now finds herself heartbroken and alone with nowhere to live.

And so begins Heartland, directed by Maura Anderson, and starring Velinda Godfrey as Lauren. What is ostensibly a “grieving lesbian falls for, and has a fling with, a straight girl” story, writers Godfrey and Todd Waring have, however, crafted a warm and moving story about family, small-town attitudes and being queer in an Oklahoma God-fearing Christian community, where being gay is tolerated so long as you don’t talk about it, and your dead girlfriend is only ever called your “friend”.

With nowhere else to go, Lauren packs her meagre belongings into a small backpack and moves back in with her well-meaning mother, Crystal (Beth Grant). As an artist and a lesbian, Lauren is a huge disappointment to Crystal, as she longs for Lauren to conform to her conservative values. She refuses to acknowledge Lauren’s relationship with Nicole, yet is delighted to welcome Lauren’s brother Justin (Aaron Leddick) back home, in town with his big-city girlfriend Cassie (Laura Spencer) to set up a vineyard. The endless questions from all and sundry in the town of when Justin and Cassie will marry while offering no condolences for Lauren’s loss is particularly poignant.

As Cassie begins to loosen up, and Lauren’s haze of grief starts to lift in her presence, the undeniable attraction the two share draws them closer and closer together. When Justin is called back to the city for work, and the pair are sheltering from an approaching tornado, let’s just say the scene that follows replicates the storm outside! The chemistry between the two lead actresses is captivating, but while Lauren is falling in love, Cassie determines it must never happen again.

Their secret escapes and havoc ensue, with all members of the family dealing with the fallout in different ways.  The characters must now find their ways back together, to find a way to forgive and love one another again. Justin must forgive Lauren and Cassie, Crystal must stop blaming Lauren for what happened, Lauren must find some middle ground with Crystal, and Lauren and Cassie must forgive and stop blaming themselves. The complex battles being played out reflect a group of people for whom the brief affair has had a profound impact, and one that demonstrates the angst and pain that can occur when there’s a clash of values, and those you love most inflict betrayal.

By the film’s end, both Lauren and Cassie have found their paths – the ones that will begin their journeys to help them in finding out who they really are. The denouement is open-ended, some relationships are healed, some are not – and this is what real life is all about.

Velinda Godfrey, writer and star of the film, is a lesbian who grew up in Oklahoma. It was her wish to tell a story that reflected life in a place not usually accepting of the LGBTIQ community, but to tell it without making that the focus. Lauren’s a lesbian, but it’s not the main point of the film – she just is. She and Todd Waring, together with director Maura Johnston, wanted a film about regular people living their lives, without using the main character’s sexuality as a driving plot point. It is certainly a significant aspect of the film, but the characters themselves drive the narrative – their wounds, their flaws, their desires and their “humanness”.

This might not be the best film you have ever seen, but the team worked hard to bring it to life with extensive Indiegogo crowdfunding helping it along to the final product, and it will be one that will touch you and make you smile. Definitely one for your watch list.