In her new movie at the Tribeca Film Festival, Jessica Biel seems ready for a breakthrough.
“I don’t think you really know who I am,” Jessica Biel’s character, May, says in her new movie Bleeding Heart, which screened for press at the Tribeca Film Festival today. It’s a fitting line, as the movie is a chance for Biel, a persistent but rarely standout actress, to challenge our perception of her career. Modest and intimate, Diane Bell’s film may get a little lost as it veers into thriller territory, but Biel commands focus throughout, playing a centered yoga teacher who slowly loses her cool when she meets her half-sister, Shiva (Zosia Mamet), a downtrodden sex worker with one seriously bad boyfriend/pimp. As May and Shiva bond, Biel does her best with a thinly drawn character, imbuing May with a soulfulness and a hunger for connection that leads to some pretty rash decisions. It’s a good performance, for the most part, and I hope Biel continues in this vein.
Because who, really, is Jessica Biel, as an actress? She’s had a strange, peripatetic career, beginning on television’s most toxically wholesome show, 7th Heaven, and then heading the way of so many young actresses, into sexpot-girlfriend roles and scream-queen stuff. Well, O.K., there was only one scream queen role, the lead in Marcus Nispel’s stylish and scary, if unnecessary, Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, and she was actually pretty good in it. Then she tried her hand at action, in clunkers like Blade: Trinity and Stealth, and has been wandering around Hollywood since, popping up in bland mush like Playing for Keeps and junk like I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and another unnecessary remake, Total Recall. Nothing terribly interesting, and nothing, frankly, terribly well done.
But she’s clearly forever in search of better material, and on rare occasions gets it. Her résumé is peppered with a few classy minor works, like the well-reviewed Noël Coward adaptation Easy Virtue, or the magicians mystery The Illusionist, a fine little movie that was overshadowed by 2006’s other magicians period piece, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige. But it’s been awhile since she’s done anything like that. Meanwhile, Biel’s best chance at career evolution sadly sputtered out: she landed a starring role in David O. Russell’s Nailed, which was then shelved and delayed and finally released on demand this year with a terrible, vague title (Accidental Love) and Russell’s directing credit removed. Can’t Jessica Biel catch a break?
If the trades tell us anything, she’s often been close. For a few years there, her name seemed to be always in the mix when big parts were up for grabs, most notably the Catwoman role in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, which eventually went to Anne Hathaway. (Foiled by Nolan again!) Those casting whispers have died down as the 2010s have worn on, surely not helped by Nailed stalling and another big job seemingly slipping through her fingers. In response, it seems that Biel has made the smart choice to pursue indie projects that offer opportunities for growth, rather than big star-making roles.
Bleeding Heart, though an uneven and borderline silly movie at times (“Namaste, motherfucker” is actually said out loud at one point), is so far the best example of this new tack. It gives Biel the chance to work with an interesting actress like Mamet, and the two build an earthy, credible rapport. Though she’s not given too much to work with in terms of character, Biel plays May with appealing nuance, creating a low-key, bliss-based Angeleno, all light and airy and gentle and poised, who discovers within herself an untapped hardness and anger and strength. Though she sometimes falters in simple exposition scenes, when Biel has to conjure up more profound emotions, she proves adept, and surprisingly subtle. May’s reaction when Shiva shows her a picture of the biological mother May never met is perfectly calibrated, a glimmer of sadness and recognition and longing dancing across her face.
Similarly, a scene where May tells her adopted mother (a wonderfully stern Kate Burton) about Shiva gives Biel the opportunity to hint at the sense of loneliness and displacement that caused May to seek out her sister and cling to her immediately. It’s nice work, engaging and thoughtfully realized. I like this more grown-up Jessica Biel—her 30s suit her, she seems wiser and more at ease in front of the camera. It would be great to see Biel do more of this, open and expressive performances in movies that let her try new things.
This is one of the good things about Tribeca—the festival is a showcase for lots of small, offbeat movies that feature unheralded actors doing against-type things, away from the glare and pressure of an indie festival like Sundance. Sometimes those movies are pretty bad, but sometimes they’re like Bleeding Heart, oddly shaped and a little messy, but capable of surprising us with a glimpse of what a long unconsidered performer might be able to do. I’m now intrigued. Hey, Nicole Holofcener, wanna take a chance on Jessica Biel?