Putty Hill is American regionalism done (mostly) right—the region, in this case, being the eponymous lower-middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Baltimore where writer/director Matt Porterfield grew up. Centered on the family members and acquaintances of a recently deceased (fictional) twentysomething, this docu-fiction hybrid jumps from character to character, observing the youthful locals—most of whom are embodied by non-professionals enacting versions of themselves—as they play paintball, watch television or do nothing in particular. Opening up new lines of inquiry, Porterfield acts as an offscreen interviewer who conducts a series of partly improvised Q-and-As with each character, both establishing the nature of their relationship with the deceased and probing their personality through the litmus test of abstract questioning.
Putty Hill is a film that's genuinely interested in hearing what its characters have to say, even if it isn't very much. But it's also a scrupulously unpresumptuous movie, modest in the sense that it doesn't pretend to know any more about its characters than any perceptive observer might glean. Still, while every scene feels precisely observed, some seem a little too exactly so, as if the actors are at great pains to mime the speech patterns the director feels signify the behaviors of his demi-monde. And for a film as much about location as character, the frequency of blurred backgrounds and use of available light have the negative effect of displacing the film's young men and women from their surroundings. Thus while eschewing the sort of gawking horror-show presentation that even such well-intentioned films as Winter's Bone can't entirely avoid, Porterfield leaves us with the slightly underwhelming sense of being kept at an occasional—and often unproductive—distance from its subjects, whether human or environmental.
Opens February 18 at Cinema Village
The maker of one of the year's best indie films discusses class, ethnography, and documentary-fiction hybridization.
Feb 17, 2011