‘Broken Heart Land’ Review: A Powerful Reminder of the Struggles of LGBT Youth in America

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Marriage equality is not “Happily Ever After.”

A blunt way to begin a review, I know. But it can feel as if the conversation around LGBT rights in the United States has begun to consider nationwide same-sex marriage a finish line rather than one of a series of major milestones on the road to equality. There is, frankly, so much more work to do. We need a sense of the diversity of LGBT experience. That’s why films like Call Me Kuchu are so important, illuminating crises around the world.

We also need films like Jeremy and Randy Stulberg’s Broken Heart Land to remind us of the troubles of gay youth here at home. There isn’t simply legal discrimination. There is a culture of ignorance. The documentary focuses on Zach Harrington, a teenager in Norman, Oklahoma, who took his own life in 2010. He was 19 years old, a recent high school graduate and gay. The experience of dealing with his death changed his family, devastated by the loss and stunned by the enigma of his silence.

In the film, Zach’s parents search for answers about their son’s death. They read his diary. The filmmakers interview friends, at least one of whom insists that Zach wasn’t bullied at school. Much of the conversation keeps coming back to a city council meeting held that summer, at which the declaration of an LGBT history month was passed. Zach was there, watching local citizens come to the podium and object to the resolution with a variety of factually inaccurate, deeply homophobic testimony.

Did this one event push Zach over the edge? There’s no way to be sure. Still, the Stulbergs use it as an opportunity to examine the cultural and political climate of this city, ostensibly the most liberal in Oklahoma. They follow Nancy as she becomes involved in a local group of mothers advocating against homophobia. It’s an inspiring journey from grief into activism. They also tell the story of a simultaneous and opposing movement, the campaign of Pastor Chad Williams for city council. He was one of those who spoke at the meeting, proclaiming bizarre and outdated untruths about the prevalence of disease among homosexuals.

These parallel stories highlight the divide that seems ever-present in Norman. The Stulbergs do not paint a pretty picture of this place. Misinformation seems to proliferate in a community where HIV is still deeply misunderstood and religious condemnation dominates the public discourse. The Stulbergs emphasize this as often as they can, taking the traditional images of the West and coupling them with intimidating, ominous music. Oil fields, churches, picturesque vistas of the open expanse of America are haunting and bleak. It’s as visceral a reminder as possible of the social and cultural obstacles that remain.

Of course, some of this comes on a bit too strong. Zach’s diaries are quoted extensively, through voiceover and closeups on the text. This leads to some profound moments, to be sure. Yet these are the words of a teenager through and through. Bolstered by a determined score and dramatic images, they might push the audience farther than it needs to be pushed. The emotional resonance of Broken Heart Land’s story doesn’t quite need all of the help it gets from its directors.

Still, this is an important film with a lot to say. There are moments of real power, particularly those involving Nancy and her gradual transformation. Intimate and galvanizing, Broken Heart Land is among the best LGBT docs of the year.

Broken Heart Land airs on Saturday, July 28th on World and can be viewed online at the WorldChannel website.

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Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.