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How 'In a Heartbeat' Places Gay Love in the Romantic Canon

The viral short film reanimates clichés about love with a queer twist.

Saccharine heart metaphors are stitched into the English language. The heart, we've been told, wants what it wants; we wear our hearts on our sleeve and, perhaps too often, let them rule our head. The new animated short film In a Heartbeat takes a rather literal approach to these prominent sayings: In the film, a heart bursts, literally, from a boy's chest because it wants to reveal its feelings for another boy. But the four-minute story also reanimates stale heart tropes with its cast of unusual romantic leads. It installs gay love in the canon of romances that established these clichés in the first place—and have so often excluded such gentle tales of boy meets boy.

Like many queer stories, In a Heartbeat starts in hiding. Our closeted protagonist, the redhead Sherwin, darts behind a bush and clambers up a tree when he sees his crush, Jonathan, who is über-cool, approaching school. (Down-tempo strings thrum as Sherwin looks at him, longingly.) But this isn't a(nother) queer film about unrequited love. Soon Sherwin's thunderously beating heart leaps, literally, out of his body, setting off on its own to find Jonathan and do what Sherwin no longer has the heart to do: say how he feels.

The film then follows a rom-com-like trajectory. Sherwin's heart eventually chases down Jonathan, as Sherwin chases the heart, bringing the two boys together. Their reunion is immediately awkward: Students stare in disgust at the prospect that one boy's heart could yearn for another's. Sherwin, embarrassed, pulls away, breaking his heart in two. Jonathan finds a distraught Sherwin sitting under a tree and returns the other half of the boy's heart. Jonathan, it turns out, likes Sherwin, too, and their two hearts, literally, become one.

In a Heartbeat is, in its own small way, a masterful piece of subversive storytelling. The heart has long held a crowning position in human emotional and psychological thought; indeed, throughout much of history, "the heart was the seat of what made humans human," as cultural historian Fay Bound Alberti writes in her cultural history of the human body This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture. Here, though, the film manages to reinvigorate the cultural position of this muscular lump of an organ, re-imbuing it with the humanity that the overuse of romantic clichés has slowly worn away. In a film that has no dialogue, the actions and expressions of Sherwin's heart telegraph a thrilling emotional arc—viewers perceive Sherwin's misfortune and unhappiness even when he doesn't say a word.

Animation, in this particular case, allows for the admittedly absurd anthropomorphized heart to come across as insightful, even pointedly progressive. Sherwin's heart, viewers see, is alive. It bounds. It brims. It breaks. The film, via this core conceit, offers a poignant expression of the quiet anxieties that characterize a budding gay crush—the he-loves me/he-loves-me-not debate. By zooming in on queer emotional internal conflict, the film pushes back against the homophobic line of reasoning that suggests that queer love is unnatural—that it has nothing to do with the heart. Here, his heart has to force Sherwin to reveal his true feelings; and it pulls into focus the potential rewards in being forthright with one's feelings in spite of outside obstacles.

It's also just a really fun, and widely appealing, short story. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Esteban Bravo, one half of the duo that created the film (his co-filmmaker was fellow art student Beth David), said, "We just hope that this helps to change, or begin changing, what people think about people in this community and try to understand them better." Animation, of course, isn't just a genre that can make a heart believably run away onscreen; it also conjures disarmingly familiar children's films. Indeed, In a Heartbeat's aesthetic resembles Disney's predominately heteronormative CGI-animated fairy tales and children's stories.

The short film has already harnessed the power of its widespread format—it's at 23 million views so far—and has been covered in parenting magazines. And so, while the film winks to animation's subversive potential, it also shows how stories like its own are fundamentally mainstream.