For a lot of the singular voices in the American independent film scene — several of whom attended the affable Maryland Film Festival this week, where short films and discoveries take center stage — things are rough. In conversations with a few attendees, I heard candid admissions about the challenges of making movies unhindered by commercial boundaries and for that same reason kept out of the public eye. But that’s also what makes the discovery of a movie completely obscured by more attention-grabbing entries so gratifying — it validates the search. So it goes with Josephine Decker’s “Butter on the Latch,” which had its world premiere at the festival on Thursday night.
Decker has made a couple of well-received short films (including “Me the Terrible,” which the New Yorker’s Richard Brody acclaimed for its “simple heartbreak and cosmic wonder”) that blend comedy and pathos; she also famously stripped naked in front of Marina Abramovic, an attention-grabbing feat that managed, for a moment, to upstage the official one on display. Those sensibilities — imagination and showmanship — are fully on display with this brief feature (it clocks in at just over an hour), but they also show the filmmaker’s capacity for communicating darker sensibilities.
Photographer Sarah Small stars as urbanite Sarah, who endures a wild night out and then ventures into the forrest for a Balkan music camp in the green emptiness of Mendicino, California. Once there, with her rascally pal Isolde (Phillippa Lamb), she spends time with dozens of other visitors taking part in the mystical rituals of the music and learning about its history. Eventually, Sarah falls for a hunky camper and loses grasp on her surrounding reality; as the filmmaker provides glimpses of nightmarish visions taking over Sarah’s mind, “Butter on the Latch” gets seriously bizarre and intangible.
However, Decker never tries to impose a conventional narrative structure on the proceedings, and the ambiguities develop their own bizarrely compelling rhythm. She presents each development in fleeting, at times aggressively confounding fragments that never lack an inviting sense of strangeness. Beautifully captured by cinematographer Ashley Connor, the empty vistas and shadowy night scenes lit by fire and flashlights take on the qualities of a haunting fairy tale all jumbled up and oddly familiar at the same time.
When things get wacky, they get really wacky: With the arrival of a speedy POV shot darting through the woods, like the menacing force of “Evil Dead” lost in an experimental purgatory, Sarah starts to see some crazy shit — and acts out. Frame rates speed up and slow down as eerie music charts her downward spiral. While demonic women dance through the woods and grin madly, Sarah may or may not take a page from their lunacy in a sudden off-screen twist. Constructed entirely out of improvised dialogue, “Butter on the Latch” is a spooky portrait that shares its protagonist’s dwindling subjectivity without simplifying it. The movie has a liquid, transient quality that syncs with its clear-cut interest in the intangible qualities of self-identification. Yet like the music at its center, “Butter on the Latch” conveys something ancient and powerful that transcends any precise interpretation.
However, the movie bears the obvious markings of an unfinished, unpolished product. Decker supposedly wrapped the editing process moments before the premiere. It’s missing an extra act that might make its character easier to feel for; instead, she’s hardly defined well enough for us to care much about her fate. Still, “Butter on the Latch” frustrates by design while showing off the evident vision of its creator, whose career is one to keep an eye on. This isn’t the easiest kind of work to release into the world, but surely deserves a place in it.