Putty Hill
Directed by Matt Porterfield
United States, 2011

I appreciated the intelligent formal experimentation and shot-to-shot expressiveness of this sophomore feature from director Matt Porterfield, as he pokes the social web of a suburban Baltimore neighborhood to see how it’s affected by the fatal drug overdose of a young teen named Cory. Using techniques of improv with his actors, most non-professional, and employing a direct interview format borrowed from documentary film, Porterfield blends fictional and non-fictional modes — the actors play versions of themselves and their friendships are real, but Cory’s death is on-screen only — what’s slowly revealed isn’t individual characters but rather their relationships, as mediated by geography (lots of driving around in cars, a couple of the characters moved away but are back for Cory’s funeral), public spaces (a skate park, a bar), institutions (law enforcement, prison) and socio-cultural practices and affinities such as listening to heavy metal, making tattoos, skating, BMXing, taking and selling drugs and also of course, the marking of life events constituted in Cory’s funeral, which is notable for its karaoke. One of the more refreshing insights the film provides is that just because a network of people looks casual from the outside, doesn’t mean it’s not complex, having its own rituals and collective memories.

For me this film shows far more encouraging signs of life and creativity in American independent filmmaking than say, recent Sundance darlings Beasts of the Southern Wild and Winter’s Bone, but still there is something off-putting about the characters’ relative blankness and sameness — I had difficulty at times telling them apart and this seemed a deliberate effect — particularly since Porterfield himself, while a Maryland native, differs from his subjects in age and class. While the distance he maintains with formalist tactics usually works well in mitigating any possible condescension, the film feels more amateur ethnographic than Porterfield says it is on his website.

Perhaps more importantly, the one scene in the film when any character displays any overt emotionalism — Jenny, who no longer lives in Baltimore, breaks down in front of her estranged father Spike, the tattoo artist — seems tonally off, and also registers as an ironic comment on the celebrity of actor Sky Ferreira, who became a model and singer/songwriter after promoting herself extensively on MySpace. Not every move this film makes seems entirely justified but overall it’s an impressive and serious feature.