There is so much independent American cinema these days, you'd think it was really simple to make a film. It's enough to prompt even the most populist souls among us to stop and question whether certain "revolutions" of the past few decades — such as the advent of inexpensive DV equipment and the one-two punch of Sundance and SXSW — have ultimately been to the good. Netflix and VOD channels are clogged with heartfelt but solipsistic and painfully similar stories: coming of age here, working a dead-end job there. It becomes difficult to even want to try to keep track.
What a restoration of faith it is, then, to discover a truly world-class talent, and have the opportunity to watch him grow. The two feature films to date by Baltimore's Matthew Porterfield are unusually exquisite examples of poetic regionalism — works that explore the lives of the U.S.'s rapidly expanding lower classes with a sense of rigor and purpose. Some have compared his work to David Gordon Green's early films George Washington and All the Real Girls — back when Green was aping Charles (Killer of Sheep) Burnett instead of Danny (Dude, Where's My Car?) Leiner.
But Porterfield's observation of the lower-class habitus is more organic and far less self-satisfied. His first film, 2006's Hamilton (named for a lower-middle-class neighborhood in northeastern Baltimore), is a free-form mood piece held together by equal parts anxiety and natural awe. There is not much in the way of a story. Rather, we observe a few key days as 17-year-old new mother Lena (Stephanie Vizzi) and her friend / future sister-in-law Candace (Sarah Siepp-Williams) care for the baby, while Lena worries whether Joe (Christopher Myers), her semi-AWOL baby-daddy, is going to face up to his responsibilities.
But Porterfield's second film, Putty Hill (again, named after a working-class Baltimore subdivision), represents a bracing evolution. The filmmaker has retained his loose, poetic mode of observation, depicting fragments of a mostly disenfranchised community without judgment or undue romanticization. At the same time, Porterfield has introduced a new layer of formalism that provides a kind of armature for his open-text style.
Relying mostly on nonprofessional actors, Putty Hill is a portrait of a community coming together in the wake of a young man's death by overdose. Friends remember him, long-gone young family members come back to town. Those in the immediate circle (many of whom hadn't seen much of the guy since he'd done jail time) try to figure out what meaning, if any, this sudden loss has for their lives.
Porterfield's major gamble, the formal element that sets Putty Hill apart so dramatically, is the introduction of a faux-documentary structure, in which an unseen interlocutor engages the characters in direct-to-camera interviews. The method is light years away from "reality TV" bullshit. In fact, Putty Hill is the first film I can think of since the "counter-cinema" heyday of the 1970s that displays the direct influence of Peter Watkins (The War Game, Edvard Munch). Porterfield has, in fact, triumphed by forging a most unlikely hybrid: Watkins meets late Gus Van Sant.
And yet, despite those pre-existing touchstones, he's achieved something completely his own. Putty Hill is a stern yet moving reminder that no human being can be excised from our orbit without unforeseen ramifications. Unexpectedly, Porterfield's methods of distance only redouble the emotional punch of the various kinds of loss he depicts. The result is a singular film, and unquestionably one of the year's very best. It gives hope for what other stories and voices might be out there — bold, clear signals in the buzzing static of our prolific indie cinema.
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