Local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield uses naturalism in such a way as to make other, supposedly “realistic” films seem positively glamorized.
His camera is never in a rush. He focuses on tiny, mundane details, the kinds of things we rarely see in a movie: The cluttered bins of a dime store, an ugly generic plastic bag, the smudged “x” on a hand at a rock show.
Because his camera moves so languorously and because he favors quiet observation, those rare moments where emotions do run high are particularly affecting.
Take the scene featured in the trailer: Bill (Ned Oldham) sits in his basement strumming a beautiful song. Then, the song ends, and without provocation, Bill smashes his guitar against a beam, breaking it.
You see, Bill has been left by his wife Kim (Kim Taylor). There’s an intimation that when Bill and Kim met they were both musicians with ambitions of a professional career. Somewhere along the line, Bill became the breadwinner, while Kim continued to pursue the life of a musician.
“Write a song about it,” Kim says to Bill early in the film, not in a dismissive way, but merely to suggest that he express his anger over the separation through music.
“I don’t write songs anymore,” Bill says. “I pay bills.”
But, ironically, the separation does seem to bring out Bill’s creative side. He jams with his buddy in the basement right before Kim takes back the drum kit and amps. (He has to endure the humiliation of watching the members of Kim’s band—one of whom she’s sleeping with, although he doesn’t know this yet—parade through his house with the equipment). Or maybe jamming with his friend is his own form of wallowing: He wants to convince himself he’ll miss the equipment more than he actually will.
Meanwhile, Bill and Kim’s teenage daughter Abby (Hannah Gross) is firmly on her father’s side, although she’s not especially happy with either of them. Home from college, she mopes around the house, sullen and snarky. A missing waffle iron sends her into a fit of rage.
Into this somewhat volatile mix comes Taryn (Daragh Campbell), Kim’s college-aged niece, who has essentially run away from home (in her case, she’s run far—home is Northern Ireland). Taryn is also pregnant and the fact that is a minor plot point in the film—not a cause for hand-wringing and moralizing—gives you a sense of Porterfield’s priorities. Real life just kinda chugs along: A niece from out of town comes at a completely inopportune time, and you deal with it. People are casually cruel to each other, even when they don’t mean to be. Dreams are abandoned, and sometimes even forgotten. (“Did you know that your mom raced cars?” Kim says to Taryn, as they flip through an old photo album. “No!” says Taryn, astonished.)
As always, Porterfield has filmed in Baltimore—the Prime Rib is featured prominently in one early scene and, if the Roland Park home looks authentically lived in, that’s because it is. (Porterfield filmed at the house of some friends—that’s even their cat). The cast are a mixture of musicians and professional actors—all completely natural, not one giving a “performance” (I mean that in the best possible sense). The songs on the soundtrack are achingly lovely—except for an appropriately thrashy punk rock tune that Abby and Taryn see at local club.
This is Porterfield’s third film, and I admit I was expecting it to be a bit less cinéma-vérité style, especially since he teamed up with a new screenwriting partner, Amy Belk. If it is more mainstream than his dreamy Putty Hill and Hamilton, it’s only incrementally so.
I once asked Porterfield why he was drawn to such lazy rhythms.
“I guess I just like boring things,” he quipped.
I’d hardly call his films boring. Porterfield makes us look closer—focus on things we might not otherwise see. That’s his gift. He revels in the beauty of ordinary things.
Filmmaker Matthew Porterfield will be at The Charles Theater to answer your questions at the 7 and 9:15 p.m. shows on Friday and Saturday.
Disclosure: I contributed modestly—I’m talking, what-I-found-between-the-cushions-of-the-couch modestly—to this film’s Kickstarter campaign.