Written and directed by Kyle Gerkin, the all Arizona made indie feature “Seven Hours In Heaven” premiered on Saturday, March 25 during the 2015 Phoenix Film Festival to a sold out audience. Created and completed with little hype and fanfare, ‘Heaven’ was inspired by the absolutely awful independent film “The Big Ask” (dir. Thomas Beatty) that lead actress Colleen Hartnett and director Gerkin saw during the 2014 Phoenix Film Festival. Gerkin and Hartnett left the theater knowing they could do much better with the same kind of plot (good friends deciding to have sex with each other) and in only one year they have completed their film. ‘Heaven’ gets right down to business, beginning with a drunken annual get-together in a large cabin in the woods. Three women that have remained friends since childhood reunite every year at the cabin and bring along their significant others. Lisa (Hartnett) is engaged to Cade (Aaron Ginn-Forsberg), an artist. Band geek Rob (John Crosthwaite) is married to the sad and sensible Jane (Aria Song). Single mom Melanie (Honda King) is showing off her new and much younger boyfriend Ryan (Mark Grossman). Liquor flows freely throughout the night and as the party drags on, an adult version of “Seven Minutes in Heaven” is proposed. To make things interesting, certain rules are imposed; the couples will be paired off by lottery, the duration of the arranged tryst will be seven hours, and there is to be no discussion or repercussions from this event when the sun rises on a new day. As firelight fades and dawn gives way to daybreak, a sad miasma predictably descends over the group. Despite every agreeable caveat, they all quickly realize their lives will never be the same.

The performances in ‘Heaven’ are solid and captivating, tragic and quite believable. I’m not a huge fan of the one location/heavy dialog genre’ but the formula works well for this film. The forest location is cold and isolated; the characters are stuck in their predicament with no relief or escape until this weekend gone awry is over. Hartnett is a powerhouse as the snarky and instigating Lisa, but goes a little over the top with some ill advised, drunken-porn-star-with Tourettes dialog that is unnecessarily jarring. Honda King is a joy to watch on screen, having a blast as the freewheeling single mom Melanie. She just wants everyone to have a good time, but to also keep it real. Aria Song checks in somberly and seriously as the dour and defeated Jane who is desperately trying to find purpose in her life. I have to give the serious props for this film to Mr. Mark Grossman as Ryan. Grossman brings a carefree innocence to his character, having fun and never judging the older members of the group for their steady stream of bad decisions. Grossman’s youth and sincerity in this role provides just the right cohesion for the rest of the characters. He has his whole life ahead of him to make mistakes and he’s not super anxious to get started on making them. Grossman and King are perfectly paired together as the new couple; he reminds her that she can still be her own person despite anything she may regret and she is hopelessly in love with him.

When a tight knit group such as those involved in shooting this film in a mere eight days are crammed together, it is an understatement to say that things can become very intense. When they are not filming, they don’t get much of a break from each other as they all stay in the same location and eat and sleep under the same roof for the duration of the shoot. It becomes essential for the sanity of everybody to run and gun and git-er-dun. There isn’t a lot of time for referential shot composition, symbolism or gradually developing intentional metaphors. ‘Heaven’ is a very good looking and good sounding film, but a lot more time was needed to take it from the simple pathway it began on, to the impressive summit it had hoped to lead to. My conversations with director Gerkin immediately after the film screened neither confirmed the impressions I had garnered from certain scenes, nor did they cause me to completely dismiss them.

Instinctively, it is the close quarters and dialog that drives this film beyond its original intent. There is a much bigger picture show playing out before our eyes than drunken adults behaving badly and awakening the next morning swirling in regret. There is also a much stronger message than wasted youth and grown-up envy. However intentionally or unintentionally, ‘Heaven’ deftly and subtly introduces a sinister agenda that darkly oozes from the childhood murk of a mountain lake and is angrily etched in the shadows of craggy forest trees. For all c o v e r t appearances, negative emotions have simmered within this group for many years, and perhaps now those emotions have finally boiled to the surface. Their annual reunions are anything but nurturing retreats surrounded by supportive pals who have maintained a life-long friendship. These are often tense, awkward alcohol lubricated slam sessions annually repeated for the purpose of ensuring everyone from the old gang is still among the living; everyone is surviving but nobody is thriving. Their years of dreary, seemingly symbiotic collective consciousness knows the only way that they can free themselves from each other is to leave a trail of scorched earth; a dark and reprehensible secret that was manufactured by necessity and existing for the purpose of keeping them apart, allowing these adults to finally be free of each other. As a true blue neorealist, I did enjoy “Seven Hours In Heaven,” solely for its hopelessness and grim examination of toxic friendships. A slowly moving yet intense excursion into the darkest depths of smoldering, warped obligations. A twisted commitment that can easily burn a person down in a blue, fever dream hellfire of memories and realities.

Final Take – If this is heaven, I’m screwed.