Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill has about it a quality of quiet observance, as if in mourning not only for the passing of Cory, the fictional teenager for whom the residents of the titular suburb of Baltimore offer their informal remembrances in the film, but also for the dreams of a community. In North America dreams are made of social mobility, and to the people of Putty Hill that’s a privilege long since lost. As one of the characters, an ex-convict trying to get into plumbing and air-conditioning repair now that he’s out, says when asked why he became a drug dealer; “I thought I could get rich quick.”
He’s not the only one in Porterfield’s cross-section of the community who’s been to prison either. That crime and drugs are escape routes from economic entrenchment is clearly conveyed here, but not through any kind of didacticism or posturing. Rather than create a political film, Porterfield and company have created a humanistic one, an audiovisual tapestry of life in a working-class American suburb.
The inhabitants of Putty Hill are played by themselves, all except teenager Jenny (Sky Ferreira), who nonetheless blends in with an admirable performance. The authenticity of the non-professional ensemble carries the film. There’s no story, just people going about their lives and talking, and they feel so vividly real that it’s easy to forget that they’re in a fictional narrative at all, that Cory doesn’t exist. Indeed, the conceit of Cory’s death by overdose barely even matters, as the inhabitants of Putty Hill (who are both observed and interviewed by the unseen Porterfield in a quasi-documentary style) have little to say about him. He’s just a symbol of what they all live with every day. They’re survivors, and he wasn’t.
This isn’t to say that the film is a horrific portrait of abject poverty—it’s subtler than that, showing us the people in the middle of the lower economic strata. They have homes, families, friends, cars, computers, pets, even the occasional swimming pool. Porterfield doesn’t sensationalize the drama of their lives. Putty Hill is a picture of mundanity, of the difficulty of simply getting by when there’s nothing to look forward to but what you’ve already got. It respects the marginalized, and in doing so gives their lives import.
It’s unusually riveting considering that the film has its drawbacks as both a narrative and a documentary, since it neither tells a story nor gives us a definitive thesis. But it works as an impressionistic piece of social realism, following in the footsteps of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh but moving even further away from conventional narrative and artifice. As a result, characterization is light as well, since we spend little time with any one of the various characters. The community itself becomes the main character, brought alive onscreen by the rich sense of place established by Porterfield’s wandering camera and brushstroke portraits of the inhabitants.
The verite visual style feels jarringly lo-fi at first, but as the film unfolds it attains an unembellished beauty because of Porterfield and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier’s still framing and bright, naturalistic palette. There’s a poeticism to the patient rhythm of the editing, which favours long, lingering shots that make moving photographs of Putty Hill’s encroaching woods, ramshackle houses and graffiti-stained skating parks. Some of the shots hold too long, and some scenes sag with padding (even so, it’s short at 85 minutes) that feels extraneous. But it’s worth it when the film observes the moments of grace that the inhabitants of Putty Hill leave behind them without realizing it, whether it’s the balletic weave of skaters and bikers across undulating concrete, or the sinuously lovely memorial for Cory one anonymous teenager leaves scrawled in white spray-paint on a red brick wall.
Putty Hill premiered in 2010 at the Berlin International Film Festival, and has screened at several international festivals since. It’s unlikely to get a wider theatrical release of any kind, so it’s something of a privilege to be able to see it. Fans of independent cinema in Vancouver shouldn’t miss this chance.
Reviewed by Indrapramit Das
USA 2010. Director: Matt Porterfield
Cast: Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor Jr., Dustin Ray, Charles Sauers
Colour, HDCAM. 85 mins.
For more information on showtimes: http://www.cinematheque.bc.ca/putty-hill