Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I Used to be Darker (2013) A Film by Matt Porterfield

Like Richard Linklater, Charles Burnett, and Kelly Reichardt, among others, Matt Porterfield has emerged as a key American regional filmmaker. These directors, at one point or another – Linklater in the early stages of his career and on and off since, Burnett for only a few shining moments, Reichardt for her Oregon trilogy – have been notable for their obsessive cataloging of the small-scale dramas of the nation's less represented alcoves. I Used to be Darker is Porterfield's third feature, and his third in a row to be set in the lower to middle class suburban neighborhoods of Baltimore. In each of these films, Porterfield examines a tight-knit group of townsfolk and a collection of unremarkable, lived-in locales through loose narratives that put a greater emphasis on family, community, and atmosphere than plot. For the tourist-spectator, the result is a veneer of intimacy and authenticity, the impression of being privy to the most accurate firsthand representation of a particular way of life.

Of course, Porterfield interrogated the very notion of this authenticity with Putty Hill through that film's uncanny meshing of observational drama and direct address interviews with cast members. With I Used to be Darker, Porterfield has taken another measure to distance his work from the impression of unvarnished, documentary-like truth: the film is his first fully scripted undertaking. Yet even as Porterfield has moved away from outright improvisation, his latest exhibits the same casual rhythms and miniaturized focus that have defined his cinema so far. The lessons learned from Putty Hill's inspired if decidedly messy blurring of documentary and fiction tendencies – namely, that "realness" is futile if emotional content is pure – have been carefully put into practice in I Used to be Darker, which approximates the texture of daily life in Baltimore while also taking dramatic liberties to pursue with greater precision a specific emotional upheaval.

Like Putty Hill, I Used to be Darker takes on the sort of universally damaging subject that is likely to divide a group of people before bringing them hesitantly back together. In the prior film, that topic was the death of a close friend. Here, Porterfield hones in on a subject he and his co-writer Amy Belk allegedly know well: divorce and its repercussions. One gets the sense that Porterfield is drawn to these agitated in-between states because they simultaneously test the limits of a community's (or in this case, a family's) internal bond and raise the unsettling question of how to carry over a prior stability in a new, uncertain future. This is the central dilemma experienced by Bill (Ned Oldham) and Kim (Kim Taylor) – parents enduring a bitter legal separation – and their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). To complicate things further, their Irish niece Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who has escaped to America against her parents' knowledge, has arrived with her own set of pending issues: an unwanted pregnancy, a growing alienation from her lewd peers, and a rocky relationship with her mother.

With this scenario alone, Porterfield establishes the ingredients for a hot-blooded domestic melodrama, but I Used to be Darker is less invested in the collisions of conflict embedded within its circumstances than it is in the drawn-out pockets of uncertainty occurring between the respective emotional spikes, the laze-about afternoons and evenings when frustrations simmer beneath a mundane surface. Indeed, in the few instances when the film does indulge in dramatic skirmishes, its weakest tendencies are illuminated: particularly the thespian shortcomings of non-actors and real-life musicians Oldham and Taylor, who struggle with selling the script's more darting emotional pivot points, but also a few grand gestures – Bill beating his guitar like Kurt Cobain against a pole in his basement after the camera watches the entirety of his impromptu ballad performance – that tip the scales towards melodrama. In nearly every other case, Porterfield shows a gift for imbuing seemingly arbitrary details or moments with a wealth of character information. For instance, a feverish jazz record reverberates throughout Bill's house while the camera follows Abby through it, suggesting either her father's loss of a stable center or his nostalgic desire for youthful pleasures. In another scene, Abby is shown performing a subpar monologue at school, a one-off moment that doesn't cohere until later when she mentions an unsuccessful audition in New York; her vague urge to become an actress registers as a compulsion to circumvent the reality of her fractured family life, a form of escape less drastic than Taryn's literal relocation.

Meanwhile, the rest of the characters audition their own potential future paths. Kim's musical aspirations take center stage, culminating in an extended live performance (of Taylor's actual song "American Child") with its own hints of a much-needed getaway. While assuming Kim is sleeping with her male band members, Bill mostly sinks into a depressingly introspective version of middle-aged bachelorhood made up of unproductive mid-day lounging and aforementioned bouts of aggressive despair. Ironically, Taryn, perhaps seeking a surrogate for the airhead who impregnated her and ditched, ends up being the flirt Bill expects of Kim, impulsively hooking up with one of her musician friends in an abandoned camper van in a nocturnal sequence reminiscent of Putty Hill's final scene of empty house loitering. As much as these characters seek alternate realities, though, Porterfield is too pragmatic a filmmaker to let them off easy. The very title of I Used to be Darker implies the tentative healing of past wounds, and fittingly the film concludes on an impression of difficult rectification tinged with the stoic acknowledgment that nothing's ever permanent.

Elevating I Used to be Darker beyond its subtle articulation of family anxieties is its delicate evocation of a particular place and subculture, a trait that, in rooting its characters to something convincingly lived-in, only further validates the emotional dynamics of the narrative. Porterfield's continuing aversion to cinematic glossiness – natural light is favored, regardless of whether or not it provides flattering illumination, and shooting locations appear to have been kept the way they were when found – results in an intimate panorama of suburban banality, the textures of which feel at once specific to this Baltimore district and true to any middle-class neighborhood anywhere in the country in the past decade. More esoteric but no less palpable are the film's sojourns into the city's independent music scene. In this regard, Abby and Taryn's journey into a murky, sweat-and-beer-soaked thrash metal show provides the film's most striking scene, captured in one long take that adopts the perspective of a roaming crowd member.

The virtue of Porterfield's regional filmmaking is precisely this balance of atmospheric immersion and emotional directness. His work refuses to deal in platitudes even as it adopts narrative content that relies on generality. I Used to be Darker easily could have fallen into the shape of a conventional dark comedy of dysfunction, systematically limiting its characterizations for the sake of simplistic dramatic equations. Instead, it projects the sense of having no clear end goal, patiently waiting with its casual, observational mise-en-scène for possibilities of harmony amongst characters who seem, at first, so hopelessly combative. I Used to be Darker does end up gesturing towards a few displays of tenderness – specifically, Abby placing her head on Taryn's shoulder – but the bitterness and unpredictability that hangs over its edges are suitably encapsulated by Kim's exit song:

Days like this.
Yeah you think about the ones that went before you.
Have you ever seen the sky such a clear blue?
And all I wanna do is live my life honestly.

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