SXSW FILM 2010
By Don Simpson | March 11, 2010
Director: Matthew Porterfield
Writers: Jordan Mintzer, Matthew Porterfield
Starring: Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor, Jr., Dustin Ray, Cody Ray
The setting is a poor, working-class suburb of Baltimore that descriptive adjectives such as decrepit, depressing and boring seem to fit best. There is nothing of merit or worth here. It seems like no one works – with the exception of drug dealers. This location is not the Baltimore of John Waters, nor is it the Baltimore that we see in “The Wire.” This is a place that the U.S. economy left behind a long time ago.
This, dare I say, “white trash” community – of tattoos, dreadlocks, torn clothing, skateboarders and BMXers, graffiti, paintball and video games, and drugs – seems like something Harmony Korine would have concocted for the silver screen; but, in the sympathetic hands of writer-director Matthew Porterfield, Putty Hill brims with subtle neo-realism. It feels like Porterfield is one of these characters, as if he knows them and understands their lives – honesty and delicacy prevail throughout this film.
Cory – the underlying link to the ensemble of characters in Putty Hill – has died of a drug overdose. It was an untimely death but, if anything, his funeral propels his fractured and disjointed family to come together. Few of his family conversed with Cory on a regular basis; none of them really knew him. Friends didn’t even know Cory. So a majority of them do not seem all that upset that Cory died. But, something about Cory brought everyone back together. Maybe they recognize that they should be closer, that they should know each other better. In some ways it might be harder to lose a relative (especially a sibling or child) if you were not close to them. Things like death seem to make you think about your relationships more.
Putty Hill is a story with a multitude of interconnected characters that do not communicate very well. Most of the characters only speak when asked a question (and sometimes those questions need to come from off camera – presumably from Porterfield – in true mockumentary fashion); but the heart of Putty Hill is what the actors do when they are not talking, when they are doing nothing. In a strange kind of way, Putty Hill is like Mumblecore for the working class. As with Mumblecore: the focus of importance is on the space between the lines of dialog; the quiet between the action. Not much happens in Putty Hill, to be perfectly blunt. This is a character-driven story to the nth degree; yet with little individual character development. I think that’s the key to Porterfield’s film and what makes it special: Who would dare make a character-driven film without proper character development? Strangely enough, it works quite well.