After the melodramatic setup of its first act, “South Mountain” almost takes a violent turn. Faced with the devastating decision by her husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) to leave her after decades of marriage, Lila (Talia Balsam) acts on an angry impulse and nearly causes irreparable harm. But director Hilary Brougher’s wise, understated screenplay undercuts the tension with a practical response, as if to prove that the movie needs no special gimmick to infuse its complex scenario with purpose. The characters are deep enough to do the heavy lifting.
Brougher’s first feature since 2006’s “Stephanie Daley” is a tender, intimate, and blatantly personal work that wears its lo-fi narrative with pride. Grounded in mature dialogue and the quiet moments in between, the movie centers on a tumultuous summer in which middle-aged Catskills resident and community college teacher Lila finds her utopian hippy lifestyle thrown into upheaval when her husband confesses that he has had a child with another woman.
The somber fallout finds Lila exploring romance with a younger man, plotting revenge on her husband, and roaming the wondrous natural scenery in her suddenly vacant home, coming to grips with a new stage of life when she least expected it. A microbudget character study and exquisite acting showcase, “South Mountain” never overextends its ambition, but it exudes a confidence in the boundaries of the material that endows its most powerful moments in an authentic emotional foundation.
Despite its gradual pace, “South Mountain” wastes no time establishing the essence of its premise. As the couple’s teen daughters prepare to leave home for summer camp and hang around outside, Edgar steals away to the bedroom to watch his paramour give birth on FaceTime. It’s the kind of visual stunt that could register as comedy in another context, but Brougher plays the moment straight (and in explicit, if pixelated, detail) as her camera lingers on Edgar’s face to capture his euphoria up close. It’s a striking narrative decision met minutes later by Edgar’s decision to break the news to his wife by phone: He has fully immersed himself in a new world, and divested himself from the one he spent 20 years building with his wife.
Of course, it’s not that simple; it never is. When Edgar returns from his new home in Brooklyn to tie up loose ends, Lila’s open-hearted mentality presents her with a unique challenge as she grapples with an implicit understanding of her husband’s position and the simmering rage she feels over her sudden abandonment. As he fades from the picture, Lila finds herself furious, isolated, and trapped in a lush prison of her own making. Brougher’s husband, cinematographer Ethan Mass, captures the extraordinary backdrop of elaborate flowers and trees as the summer proceeds along, and Lila seeps into her newfound circumstances.
The ominous score hints at the prospects of a psychological thriller, but “South Mountain” instead heads in more straightforward melodramatic territory: When a young neighborhood man (Michael Oberholtzer) drops by to help around the house, Lila flirts with the idea of sleeping with a younger man, then contends with the awkward fallout; later, she faces the familiar challenge of briefing her children on their parents’ unexpected new chapter. The movie never takes this material in a particularly surprising or innovative direction, but Brougher keeps the scale just right.
As the entire drama unfolds in the house and its surrounding fields, it transforms into a visual representation of the complex and often contradictory processes unfolding within Lila’s head. “Don’t bait me into humiliating you,” her husband tells her. “I’m already humiliated,” she fires back, and “South Mountain” magnifies the process through which she comes to terms with that irrevocable feeling, rather than pretending it could ever vanish for good. Balsam, best known these days as Mona Sterling from “Mad Men,” brings an astounding naturalism to the role of a woman suddenly forced to confront a later stage of life on her own.
Her delicate performance hovers just a touch above the movie as a whole, which sometimes sags into a lethargic pace and unwieldy tangents. A half-baked subplot involving Lila’s cancer-stricken friend (Andrus Nichols) feels shoehorned into the story, and the muted tone that hovers over every scene has a tendency to stifle some of the bigger moments.
But there’s no doubting the presence of a focused, intelligent vision guiding the small-scale material along. “South Mountain” begs to be met on its own terms, and on that level, hits every relevant mark. Its final image, of the yawning mountain landscape, provides a cogent reminder that even the bleakest tales of heartbreak and loneliness are dwarfed by nature’s incessant grandeur.
“South Mountain” premiered in the Narrative Competition at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.