At the beginning of “The Heart Still Hums,” a new documentary featuring Elk Grove-based nonprofit Chicks in Crisis, a young girl recounts why her biological mother put her up for adoption.
“My birth mom was sick, so she needed someone else to take care of me,” says the girl, Corinna.
Corinna’s story represents the goals that drive Chicks in Crisis, which facilitated her adoption. From a converted farm on East Stockton Boulevard, the organization aids both disadvantaged parents and protects their children.
Savanah Leaf, Corinna’s adoptive sister, spent time with Corinna’s biological mother before the girl’s birth. Text in the documentary says that when Corinna was born, her birth mother asked Leaf “to be the role model she couldn’t be.”
The experience inspired Leaf to create “The Heart Still Hums.” This short film follows five local mothers as they navigate the difficult choices brought on by homelessness, addictions and neglect by their own parents. It documents the women’s complex emotions and determination to do right by their children.
The documentary has won four awards since its 2020 release, including most recently Best Short Film from the Hollywood Critics Association.
An Olympian-turned-director, Leaf, 27, played on the British Olympic volleyball team in 2012 before a sports injury prompted her transition to short films and music videos. She co-directed “The Heart Still Hums” with Taylor Russell, known particularly for her starring role on the reboot of “Lost in Space.”
During her time in the Sacramento area, Leaf also got to know Chicks in Crisis founder Inez Whitlow.
“I’ve known Savanah for many years,” Whitlow said in an interview at the Elk Grove nonprofit’s ranch. “So I’ve watched Savanah grow for the last 10 years.”
The ranch stands out in the film’s black-and-white cinematography. Amid shots of highways and paved suburban landscapes, a section in which Whitlow gardens alongside a client named, Becca provides a burst of nature.
Whitlow observed that Leaf’s films focus “on the realness of people’s lives.”
“And one day, she told me, ‘One day, I’m going to make a documentary about what you do,’” Whitlow recalled.
That day came in 2019, when Leaf and Russell spent two weeks in Elk Grove and Sacramento, filming the subjects of the movie and following Whitlow as she worked to help local parents.
Some of the women featured had chosen to raise their children themselves, while others had arranged open adoptions for their children. Whitlow said Chicks in Crisis helps with both of these options and ensures that each child grows up in a nurturing environment.
“I think (the documentary) really showed what we do here and how we support women in their choices,” Whitlow said. “We don’t just hand out diapers and formula. That’s one of the things that we do really well, but there’s so many other facets of it.”
Leaf could not be reached for comment, but in a 2020 interview with talent platform Free the Work, Leaf spoke about the kind of subjects she wants to cover.
“I tend to gravitate towards stories like my own or that I have a connection to in one way or the other,” Leaf is quoted as saying. “That goes anywhere from athlete stories to stories about being a child of a single mother to being mixed race to being Black in America. All of these stories have some sort of connection to me. I think that’s reflected in all my work.”
“The Heart Still Hums” can be viewed on the SearchlightPictures YouTube channel.