Written by: Robin C. Farrell | August 12th, 2021
Charming the Hearts of Men (S.E. DeRose, 2020) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Set in the early 1960s, Charming the Hearts of Men focuses on two women, one white and one Black, in the 1960s Deep South who inspire historic women’s rights legislation. Grace (Anna Friel, Books of Blood) returns home after the death of her father, a judge, and discovers that her family estate is in tremendous debt, threatening the livelihoods of the staff, including Jubilee (Pauline Dyer, A Stone Cold Christmas). As a woman, Grace’s only options are selling items at the local pawn shop and finding a man to marry. Despite this cheerless predicament, Jubilee and Grace explore their shared and diverse worlds, searching for romance and steady work, all the while making new friends in unexpected places.
The film starts off well. The performances are instantly absorbing and the seeds of an innovative premise can be found, though they don’t get the chance to mature. Trying to convey white and Black perspectives becomes muddled very quickly and neither feels fully formed. The Black characters’ stories are given equal, though sometimes less, emphasis than those of the white characters and the film calls out sexism more directly than racism, which winds up feeling disproportionate and awkward.
First-time director S.E. DeRose examines the concurrent struggles of multiple oppressed groups and outsiders, as well as the parallels, the distinctions, and the insidious way that prejudice can affect the very oppressed people, themselves. It’s not a new idea, but worth investigating further and, sadly, the film doesn’t invest in an equally nuanced payoff. We rush instead to a happily-ever-after-style conclusion that doesn’t feel realistically grounded. There’s little to no acknowledgement of the remaining racial tensions in the town, let alone the years of Civil Rights struggles ahead or the prejudice still rampant in our world today.
Where the film takes a bolder approach, it works. The script contains somewhat clunky recitations of statistics and familiar messages but it hammers home the reality of how little has changed since the 1960s and feels like an evolution from where the story began. Between the beautiful musical score, luscious visuals, and moments of successful characterization, Charming the Hearts of Men might have been better served as a series in which some of the points and themes could have played out fully and more organically over time. But then, perhaps this is one that viewers must see and evaluate for themselves.