You keep waiting for catastrophe to strike in Roberto Minervini’s taciturn Stop the Pounding Heart. The handheld camera drifts without judgment through scenes of home-schooled children in forced prayer, shirtless trailer-park boys riding a makeshift mechanical bull, those same boys mounting a dangerously unqualified elementary-school kid on the bull.
But nothing wrenching happens, just unforgettable moments of piercing isolation and sadness. Stop the Pounding Heart is part of what Minervini calls his “Texas trilogy” (the two other films, The Passage and Low Tide, are not sequels but feature some of the same cast and themes; all three will run between September 19 and 25 at Lincoln Center).
There’s scant plot or dialogue, just glimpses of the daily rituals of the Trichell and Carlson clans (playing themselves), as the former shoot cans or train for the rodeo in their backyard and the latter, when not engaged in group prayer, milk cows and goats on their barren farm. The eldest Carlson, Sara, is attracted to the eldest Trichell boy and finds herself doubting her faith. There is certainly darkness lurking within each family.
The Trichell patriarch is a recovering drug addict, and the Carlsons command their young daughters to be subservient to men (when Sara first rebels by stating she won’t wed, her brainwashed sisters call her a spinster). But Minervini doesn’t condescend to either brood.
He’s hyper-aware of the chilling sermonizing on display, but also the warmth; this time, characters who might have been portrayed as Bible Belt nut-jobs come off as unconditionally loving. That anomaly somehow makes Sara’s deeply felt — but unspoken — loneliness all the more devastating.