Matthew Porterfield's sleeper hit "Putty Hill" was heralded for its keen melding of documentary and narrative traditions into a poetic exploration of a small Baltimore community impacted by a young man's sudden death. The movie drifted effortlessly from one environment to another, constructing a sense of place through a collage of emotions, offhand exchanges and occasionally breaking the fourth wall. Porterfield's follow-up "I Used to Be Darker" similarly weaves realism and a rigid storytelling structure together with affecting results, even though it adheres more closely to familiar patterns in its perceptive examination of a deteriorating American family. Not your typical divorce drama, "I Used to Be Darker" stings harder than most.
Porterfield's third feature, co-written by Amy Belk, takes place in the aftermath of a decision by middle-aged couple Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham) to end their marriage, much to the frustration of their daughter, college newbie Abby (Hannah Gross). Into this mess lands Taryn (Deragh Campbell), Kim's niece and Abby's first cousin, an alienated teen who ran away from her family in Northern Ireland before causing a ruckus in Maryland and abruptly crashing with her shell-shocked relatives. While Kim and Bill attempt to care for the young woman in the midst of their own problems, Abby grows increasingly resentful of her mother and Taryn evades the mounting pressure to call her parents.
Plotwise, "I Used to Be Darker" has little to offer beyond those palatable ingredients, but Porterfield often seems more interested in using the scenario to establish a series of melancholic tones with incredibly effective results. The two real-life musicians in the parental roles, Taylor and Oldham, perform original compositions throughout the movie and often commandeer it, elevating the experience beyond its linear story to convey the melancholic soul-searching plaguing the entire ensemble. Reteaming with cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier, Porterfield frequently views his characters from afar in long shots surrounded by open space, as if they've been dwarfed by the pressures surrounding them.
In a project like "Darker," with a more precisely defined narrative than "Putty Hill," this device sometimes creates a distancing effect from the material; however, the cerebral direction is frequently salvaged by the music, a series of beautiful elegies emphasized by their contextualization. In one scene, Oldham delivers a solemn ballad while sitting alone at home, only to lash out violently following its climax. It's a surprisingly powerful moment that transcends the more conventional events surrounding it.
While Porterfield's audacious formalism doesn't always keep pace with the low key script, his formidable cast keeps the drama intact. Newcomer Campbell, as the petite Taryn, ironically seeks solace from the world only to find herself in an even drearier situation that deepens her funk. Gross, as the assertive Abby, provides the ideal counterpoint to Taryn's restraint with rebellious outbursts that eventually isolate her from everyone save for her loving father. The musician parents, meanwhile, work through the trauma of divorce in a series of tense discussions equally disconnected from the plot while complicating its mood. Porterfield takes great pains to elaborate on small moments to the extent that the eventual progress the narrative does make — a sudden, heated romance between characters and the revelation of Taryn's reason for going on the lam chief among them — feel like a distraction from the more involving aspects of the material.
On the whole, however, "I Used to Be Darker" resonates specifically because it favors intense emotional wavelengths over story. With music as his chief device, Porterfield successfully conveys the cathartic nature of art by creating it. Despite its downbeat premise, the movie contains a kernel of hope. "I don't write songs any more," sighs Bill, but then proceeds to do just that, leading to the conclusion that creativity is the ultimate survival tactic.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Too experimental for wide release, the movie should nevertheless enjoy decent responses on the festival circuit and a limited theatrical release from a small distributor, although it's unlikely to play much more than a handful of theaters and it's not readymade for great returns on VOD. It's another sleeper hit in the making.