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In Baltimore's Shadow, A Suburb Mourns A Lost Boy

Sky Ferreira

A Prodigal Daughter: Sky Ferreira plays a pop singer who returns to town for a funeral and clashes with her ex-con father — moving among stratified social circles and illuminating an eclectic community. Jeremy Saulnier/The Cinema Guild hide caption

toggle caption Jeremy Saulnier/The Cinema Guild

Putty Hill

  • Director: Matthew Porterfield
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 91 minutes

Not yet rated

With: Sky Ferreira, Cody Ray, Zoe Vance

Like his 2006 debut film Hamilton, Matt Porterfield's Putty Hill is a hyper-indie mood piece set in a lumpen Maryland community that's grieving over the death of one of its own. The movie is a sharply observed if formally bloated addition to the canon of visceral tales from the Baltimore city — if "tale" is the right word for a movie that puts so much energy into the avoidance of plot.

Putty Hill does have a familiar hook in the off-screen death of Cory, a young heroin addict about whom we know very little. Porterfield is, perfectly legitimately, less interested in the passing of this troubled young man than in etching its emotional fallout for the three generations of family and friends who gather to mourn his loss in the working-class 'burb where Porterfield grew up, and where, after private school bought him a ticket to film school, he now lives.

If Putty Hill throbs with the solemn gravity of a young man awakening to the ordinary sorrows of life, it's also the heavily stylized trip, by turns impressive and distracting, of a filmmaker bent on becoming an expressionist auteur.

Some of his actors are locals who responded to open-call auditions and improvised their bare-bones dialogue. Sky Ferreira, a young pop vocalist with astounding hair, is especially fine as the visiting daughter of an ex-con who loves her, but has no idea how to talk to his bruised yet resilient girl. Kept afloat by a posse of friends, she moves like a ghost between the wreckage of exurban blight and the cool of leafy local glades where boys and grown men alike while away the hours playing paintball or loafing at the water hole.

Zoe Vance, Alex Herbskerman i

A sister (Zoe Vance, left) grapples with the unexpected loss of her brother by turning to a friend (Alex Herbskerman) for emotional support. Andrew Laumann/The Cinema Guild hide caption

toggle caption Andrew Laumann/The Cinema Guild
Zoe Vance, Alex Herbskerman

A sister (Zoe Vance, left) grapples with the unexpected loss of her brother by turning to a friend (Alex Herbskerman) for emotional support.

Andrew Laumann/The Cinema Guild

The rituals of a community drowning its sorrows in beer and karaoke at a local bar, or spraying RIP graffiti at a skateboard park, are beautifully rendered. But the characters Porterfield plainly loves, and who do a dandy job of revealing themselves in their own words, often feel like bit players in an experimental inquiry into the borders dividing realism and style. Their collective sorrow and makeshift recovery comes swaddled in indie-poetic cliche — dancing lozenges of light seen through a car window at night, or Porterfield's faux-documentary voiceover firing tersely pompous questions at his cast.

At its best and least mannered, Putty Hill achieves the damaged beauty of Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, and on a far smaller budget of $40,000. But a microbudget and proof of residency don't in themselves guarantee excellence, and arrogance doesn't help either. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Porterfield took a veiled sideswipe at Granik, sneering at "filmmakers who transplant themselves to the Ozarks for six months."

Porterfield could stand to learn from the satisfying forward drive of that movie, which is based on a novel by Missouri writer Daniel Woodrell. The endless circularity of Putty Hill may be meant as an homage to the dead-end lives of Baltimore's beleaguered. But it also implies a stubborn unwillingness in Porterfield to get out on that interpretive limb and practice art's greatest gift to life — weaving it into a story.

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