In between the big events that mark our lives — the births, the deaths, the falling-in-loves, the breaking-ups, the runnings-away, the reconciliations — there often exists a kind of pause moment. And it’s one such moment that Matt Porterfield’s Sundance-approved third feature, “I Used to be Darker,” which plays at the Berlin Film Festival today, deals with; a caesura that punctuates the Big Life Business that is going on in the disparate lives of one fragmented family. This a film that largely takes place either before or after the real dramas, so Porterfield sets himself a difficult task from the outset: how to dramatize that which is determinedly anti-dramatic? It’s an issue that the film, for all its small, well-observed pleasures, never really overcomes. It’s not helped by Porterfield taking his time with his largely non-professional or first-timer cast either; the film’s considered pacing takes a little getting used to. But by its end the film had worked its way under our skin deeper than we expected, and through skilfully unobtrusive editing and camerawork, we felt we had a clear, honest picture of these lives. It is essentially an exercise in mining a very specific, particular situation for tiny but universal truths, and if you have the patience, the insights are there.
Kim and Bill are separating, but as she is packing up her belongings and moving out of the family house, the phone rings to announce their 19-year-old Northern Irish niece Taryn’s sudden arrival. Taryn (Deragh Campbell) herself has just discovered that she’s pregnant after an unimportant fling, while Kim and Bill’s daughter Abby (Hannah Gross), with whom Taryn was clearly close to as a child, has not yet resolved her bitterness at her mother for leaving her father. Taryn arrives, welcomed into the riven household by each character separately, but with genuine affection, and through the course of the subsequent days it is revealed to her aunt, uncle and cousin that she has essentially run away: her parents think she’s been in Wales for the past two months, when in fact she’s been working at a beachfront store in Ocean City. We can feel comfortable revealing this much of what happens, because this is not a film that deals in revelations for the audience — there is no twist ending to spoil, no second-act cliffhanger. The revelations happen instead between the characters, and involve nothing more extraordinary than a drunken late-night clinch, or the disputed ownership of a waffle iron.
Everyone, in their way, is taking a break: Taryn from her parents, and from the burgeoning responsibility of a pregnancy she has made no clear decision on yet. Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), both musicians (the actors playing them are musicians in real life as well), are obviously breaking from one another, Bill more reluctantly than Kim. This is a very specific period in their lives, and it’s one not often seen onscreen — the time during which boundary walls have to be built back up, delineating territorial or emotional borders in a landscape that had been for so long shared. Even Abby, overwhelmed with sudden, misplaced anger at Taryn, flees briefly to New York. But if the characters all in their way seem to want just a moment to not think, to not discuss, to not act, just a little grace period where everything can remain frozen in time, well, reality has other ideas about that, and incremental change creeps back into their lives. Perhaps too incremental for the film’s own good: with Taryn a rather colorless protagonist, the slow-drip approach can sometimes cross over into lethargy.
The minimal momentum again stutters when, in the midst of the observational, minor key interactions, Porterfield chooses to incorporate three songs, played out in full, one by Bill alone in his basement, one by Kim with her band at a gig, and finally one by Kim solo and acoustic, while the credits roll. It’s the sort of conceit that usually tries our patience, and Bill’s track especially feels a little trite. But Kim’s songs work better, and there is a strange satisfaction to be derived from seeing musicians who are clearly actors second, play live while in character. The photography is similarly artlessly artful, employing a slightly washed-out grade to evoke a strong sense of a lived-in, familiar space that perfectly reflects the suburban lives these somewhat bohemian parents had made for themselves.
Some occasionally awkward performance moments aside, though, the film is very compassionate towards its characters and finds just about enough original insight within the well-worn family drama genre to keep things from feeling too familiar — it’s a just a shame there couldn’t have been a little more vitality injected early on. But then we're treated to as gracefully underplayed a resolution as we could hope for: the camera remains on Kim, singing one of her own compositions while from off screen we hear Taryn and Abby’s voices. For a second, without missing a note of her song, Kim's flash of relief tells us all we need to know about the hoped-for reconciliation between her and her daughter. The break is over, the frame unfrozen, and life proper is going to start up again, but Porterfield lets us believe, just through this minuscule moment, that perhaps that’s not such a bad thing, and perhaps some things that had been broken are beginning to mend. The moment is true and satisfying, and probably actually worth what it cost us in patience to get there. [B]