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If the camera lingers on a passed-over urban landscape long enough, will it find something meaningful? This is the cinematic riddle posed by Matt Porterfield’s second feature Putty Hill, a moody micro-budget indie that confuses austerity with profundity. Framed around the death of a troubled 20-something in its titular Baltimore County neighborhood, Porterfield’s skeletal narrative examines the disparate lives affected by his passing and their eventual collision in remembering his life. These connections, frayed and tenuous, are muttered by a cross-section of nonprofessional actors who inhabit a world of half-stocked bodegas and dimly lit apartments.
Porterfield’s style is reminiscent of the self-serious stylization of the working class employed most famously—-and with varying degrees of success—-in films like Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble, and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. Guided by such outsized talents, stark, improvisational dialogue and extended shots can ambiguously hint at something larger within a film’s minimalist subjects; Putty Hill‘s poignancy feels tacked on, a slapdash excavation that justifies its lack of momentum by assuming every ad-libbed line fosters emotional resonance. It doesn’t.
Asserting authenticity can be a losing proposition in the inherently artificial world of film, a medium in which a trip to the skate park is rife with subtle truths and each gust of wind doubles as metaphor. It’s even dicier in the world of film criticism, where Putty Hill has been widely hailed for its verisimilitude, appropriately instilling its disaffected subjects with a sense of unflinching honesty and integrity. Is Putty Hill accurate or condescending? It’s a question with no easy answer but the debate is far more engaging than anything presented on screen.
Porterfield’s distracting role as omnipotent interviewer provides him an opportunity to clinically probe his characters, a technique resembling the clumsy efforts of a therapist in training. “Have you every known anyone who’s died before?” he asks one teenager off-screen. Before she can finish her thought, he’s already onto the next question, demonstrating little regard for her response. Compassionate? Perhaps, but it’s clear he’s not listening. Like an inexperienced intern, Putty Hill might purport to have no agenda and yet it thinks it knows exactly how things should proceed.
“Putty Hill” opens today at West End Cinema, 2301 M St. NW.