The film was Mangold's directorial debut, and he wrote the screenplay for it while attending filmmaking seminars at Columbia University. The film featured an original soundtrack by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth as well as songs by Evan Dando of The Lemonheads, who also had a minor role in the film. Filming took place on location in and around Barryville and Hyde Park, New York; some scenes were filmed at the Culinary Institute of America's campus there.
The film begins at Pete and Dolly's, a small roadside diner/tavern in sleepy upstate New York, where thirty-something Victor (Pruitt Taylor Vince) is a cook employed by his mother, Dolly (Shelley Winters), the owner of the restaurant. Dolly spends most of her time sitting in a chair in the back of the kitchen, reminiscing about her late husband and antagonizing waitress Delores (Deborah Harry), a lonely woman who has worked at the restaurant for fifteen years, and also had a meaningless affair with Dolly's husband.
The routine and rhythm of the restaurant is changed when Dolly hires a new waitress, Callie (Liv Tyler). She is sweet and soft-spoken, and a college drop out. She catches the eye of the painfully shy, overweight Victor. Callie's presence complicates the lives of the rest of the employees, and even some of the local regulars, such as Leo (Joe Grifasi), an alcoholic friend of Delores and long-time customer of Dolly's.
Throughout the film, Victor, who is so shy he can hardly communicate with Callie, develops a crush on her, despite her already having a boyfriend. Callie, impressed by Victor's cooking, suggests he attend the "fancy" cooking school across the river -- the Culinary Institute of America --a thought which is considered by Victor but dismissed by both his mother and Delores. Victor subtly vies for Callie's attention, but her feelings for him are of a platonic nature. Nonetheless, she finds companionship in him.
Meanwhile, Dolly depends on Victor greatly, as he still lives at home with her and takes care of the household work and shopping. Eventually Dolly's health begins to decline, and she is hospitalized after suffering a heart attack. After several weeks, when Callie demands to see Dolly, Victor takes her to the local cemetery where Dolly has been buried. Victor had not told anyone at the restaurant of his mother's death, fearing that it would "change things." Callie breaks down crying, and doesn't return for her following shift at the restaurant.
Victor's issues of self-esteem, stemming from his weight and the revelation of his mother's death come to surface several nights later at the restaurant, when Callie arrives after closing to collect her check and say goodbye. He asks for her to come and visit occasionally and she agrees—she plans on going back home and returning to college. The film ends with a slightly more confident Victor at the local grocery mart, chatting with a female cashier who appeared throughout the film.Pruitt Taylor Vince as Victor Modino
Shelley Winters as Dolly Modino
Liv Tyler as Callie
Deborah Harry as Delores (as Debbie Harry)
Joe Grifasi as Leo
Evan Dando as Jeff
David Patrick Kelly as Grey Man in the Hospital
Marian Quinn as Darlene
Meg Hartig as Donna
Zandy Hartig as Jean
Peter Ortel as Tony
J. C. MacKenzie as Gas Man
Allen D'Arcangelo as Sonny
Heavy was director James Mangold's directorial debut, as well as his first screenplay. According to Mangold, who grew up in the Hudson River Valley, he was inspired by a real-life classmate of his who was overweight, and whose mother owned a local diner; like in the film, the father had died, leaving the mother and son to run the restaurant themselves.
Mangold wrote the script for the film in 1991, while attending filmmaking seminars at Columbia University under the instruction of director Miloš Forman. In making the movie, Mangold was very focused on expression versus dialogue, especially in the character of Victor; Mangold stated that he was striving to create a "silent film, with sound".
Mangold met Liv Tyler when she was sixteen years old; Tyler had little to no acting history, but expressed great interest in it. She had been doing modeling work at the time, and was cast in the film "without hesitation" after a brief video audition with Mangold. Through Tyler, Mangold got in touch with Deborah Harry, who was well-acquainted with young Tyler through the "rock and roll" scene in New York (Tyler being the daughter of Aerosmith front-man Steven Tyler); this resulted in Harry's casting as the part of the weathered, back-mouthing Delores. Evan Dando of The Lemonheads was cast as Tyler's guitarist boyfriend because of Mangold's admiration for his music, and in hope of bringing some star attention to the low-budget production.
Pixies frontman Black Francis was originally meant to be cast as the role of Victor, but did not feel it was right for a debut acting role.
In casting the part of Dolly, Mangold sought golden age Hollywood actress Shelley Winters, who was in her mid-70s at the time. Mangold tracked down her address to her Manhattan apartment, and sent her the film's script along with a letter stating his admiration of her work. Within two days, Winters returned Mangold's contact and was subsequently cast.
The last person to be cast was Pruitt Taylor Vince, as Mangold had been having trouble finding an actor to portray the "centerpiece" character. An associate producer/friend of Mangold, who had been shooting Nobody's Fool (1994) with Vince alongside Paul Newman, suggested him. After Vince was cast, Mangold and the crew began feeding Vince doughnuts and Kentucky Fried Chicken in order for the actor, who was not remarkably overweight at the time, to rapidly gain weight before filming commenced.
The film was reportedly given a theatrical release in the United States after Liv Tyler's critical recognition in Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty (1996). Eighteen months after the film premiered to jury-winning accolades at the Sundance Film Festival (and over two years after it was originally filmed), Heavy was given a limited theatrical release in the United States in June 1996, opening on only twenty two screens. It had been released prior in the United Kingdom in late December 1995.
Following the film's success at Sundance, it garnered generally positive reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half out of four stars, and remarked the film's sense of realism in its characters and settings: "You've been in places like this. You linger over a second cup of coffee and people-watch, trying to guess the secrets of the sad-eyed waitress and the drunk at the bar and the pizza cook who looks like he's serving a sentence. You don't guess the true horror of the place, which is that there are no secrets, because everyone here knows all about everyone else, inside and out, top to bottom, and has for years." A decade later, Ebert — reviewing Mangold's 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma — called Heavy "extraordinary".
Critic James Berardinelli said of the film, "Mangold captures the nuances of life perfectly, and, by never cheapening his vision through facile resolutions, he fashions a memorable cinematic portrait.", while Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times called the film "a small, quiet miracle of a movie in which tenderness, compassion and insight combine to create a tension that yields a quality of perception that's almost painful to experience", comparing its cinematography to the work of R.W. Fassbinder, and remarking the effectiveness of Thurston Moore's score for the film.
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Gate called the film "an act of faith in itself — an argument for the kind of subtle, humanistic traces that used to be familiar on screen but somehow became all too scarce."; Barbara Shulgasser, also of the San Francisco Chronicle, said: "There is nothing cutesy or gimmicky about Heavy, which may be why something in its grimness recalls the work of Ingmar Bergman."
The internet film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, as of 2010, has the film ranked at 86% fresh (or positive), with 24/28 reviews being in favor of the film.
Director James Mangold won "Best Screenplay" and Grand Prix Asturias "Best Feature" at the Gijón International Film Festival, and the Special Jury Prize for Directing at the Sundance Film Festival.
The soundtrack of the movie featured instrumental compositions by Thurston Moore among other songs. The soundtrack was released on CD on June 5, 1996 (the same day as the film's theatrical release in the United States) through TVT Records.