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The life story of Richard Wallrath, an alcoholic who turned his life around and ultimately became a philanthropic benefactor of scholarships for 4-H and Future Farmers of America students, is told in this inspirational biopic. The number of redemptive film stories about substance abusers who have to hit bottom before returning to the top could fill all the kegs at the Anheuser-Busch brewery. Deep in the Heart is a bit different, however. The film’s focus remains primarily on the struggle to set things right rather than Wallrath’s downfall or his recovery. Sure, the film’s trajectory is familiar, but it doesn’t make the journey any less meaningful to those who seek comfort in the hope it offers. Deep in the Heart, which made its world premiere at the 2011 Austin Film Festival, has a script by Brian A. Hoffman and Josh Fasulo that sidesteps most of this genre’s easy clichés and aims to tell a story that remains within the realm of believability.
Unusual for films of this type, the embrace of religion is not the ulterior goal here. Wallrath in this film never becomes a big booster of organized religion, despite the evident faith of those around him. What redeems Wallrath is his recognition of the need to give back to society – in this case to Texas’ future farmers through 4-H and FFA scholarships. Nevertheless, religion does account for Deep in the Heart’s campiest moments: In his darkest hours, Wallrath has a vision of Val Kilmer bathed in a backlit halo. This character is only listed in the credits as the Bearded Man, but we all know it’s Jesus Christ sitting on that bar stool.
The good news is that Wallrath is played by Jon Gries. Gries appeared with Kilmer long ago in Real Genius but will probably forever be best known as Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite. Gries is one of those greatly underappreciated actors, so to see him here in almost every frame of the film is a delight. His is a quiet presence that nevertheless ranges from great intensity to subtle sensitivity. More movies should star Gries. Gov. Rick Perry also shows up in this Texas-shot film for a brief cameo. I guess he plays the savior informally known as the Unbearded Man.