SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | January 27, 2013
Director: Matthew Porterfield
Writers: Matthew Porterfield, Amy Belk
Starring: Deragh Campbell, Kim Taylor, Ned Oldham, Hannah Gross, John Belanger, Jack Carneal, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Geoff Grace, Nicholas Petr, Declan Sammon, Ellis Woodward, Jimi Zhivago
We are never quite sure how Taryn (Deragh Campbell) got from her home in Northern Ireland to Ocean City, Maryland; but when we learn that Taryn has American relatives who live in Baltimore, it seems perfectly logical that she wanted a possible safe haven in close proximity to her refuge of independence. She has not seen them in a very long time, but once Taryn discovers that she is pregnant, that is precisely where she goes — she heads directly to her Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and Uncle Bill’s (Ned Oldham) house for familiar comfort and consolation.
When she arrives in Baltimore, Taryn quickly discovers that Kim and Bill have much bigger problems with which to contend. They have just separated and are on the fast track to divorcing; their teenage daughter Abby (Hannah Gross) is stuck in the middle of the hurricane of emotions. It is not that Kim, Bill and Abby are not happy to see Taryn, but her surprise visit catches them at a very bad time. Of course they are not going to chase Taryn away, so Kim, Bill and Abby do their best to accommodate her; but the stress of Taryn’s foreign presence becomes exasperating and exhausting for everyone. Soon, all four characters find themselves at their respective wit’s end.
Matthew Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker contemplates the disintegration of modern family relationships, as everyone seems to be trying to break free of their familiar bonds. Taryn has flown across the Atlantic Ocean to escape from her parents; Kim, Bill and Abby struggle to break free of each other while remaining in very close proximity. All the while, it is precisely those same unbreakable family ties that drive Taryn to visit her estranged aunt, uncle and cousin; and because Taryn is family, they feel as though they must welcome her.
Porterfield’s film also discusses the role that creativity and artistry play in relationships. Kim and Bill seem to have gotten along nicely as a couple as long as they were mutually producing music; but they presumably began to drift apart once Bill gave up on his career in music and pursued a non-creative career in business. Leaving music may have been the more fiscally sound choice to make, but Bill ends up drowning his muse-less depression in alcohol. Wallowing in self-pity is definitely not an attractive trait for Bill, so of course Kim packs her bags and leaves him. But, Bill is not the only one who is floundering around trying to rediscover happiness. Like a musical Sisyphus, Kim is perpetually struggling to keep her band alive and relevant, while Taryn and Abby are each entering major existential crises of their own. As all four characters tread water, they become increasingly frustrated with themselves and each other.
I Used To Be Darker is probably the most conventionally structured three-act narrative you will ever see Porterfield direct; nonetheless he still finds ways to integrate his typical high levels of realism into the production. There is no denying that Porterfield is the modern master of utilizing diegetic sound and lighting, as well as allowing dialogue and scenes to breathe naturally, thus sharing an unmistakable kinship with Éric Rohmer and John Cassavetes. Porterfield’s unique brand of extraordinarily realistic films also features rich, visually poetic qualities. Shot by Jeremy Saulnier, I Used To Be Darker is a gorgeous film to observe; scenes are composed with classical precision and are complemented nicely by the natural light sources. Most importantly is the way that Porterfield and Saulnier always relate the characters to their surrounding environment; specifically, the rooms of Kim and Bill’s house seem to shape and define its inhabitants. That house is an intrinsic part of their existence.
I Used To Be Darker seems especially unique in its use of music. As if directing a lo-fi musical, Porterfield allows Kim and Bill to vocalize their emotions. Their song lyrics permit them to recite expository dialogue but in a completely natural manner; because it makes perfect sense that, as musicians, they would express their feelings about their current situation in song. The music is damn good too.
(Also be sure to check out our Sundance 2013 interview with Matthew Porterfield.)