Review: 'Putty Hill' is urban poetry

Director Matt Porterfield finds splendor in the everyday lives of working-class Baltimoreans

March 03, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Matt Porterfield's restless and moving "Putty Hill" is about a pocket of working-class Baltimoreans reacting to the overdose death of a 24-year-old man. It finds seductive underlying forms in what outsiders might consider shapeless lives.

When skateboarders and BMXers streak up and down and over a course of concrete dips and valleys, and a teenager tags a wall with a spray-paint baroque version of "Rest in peace, Cody," they prove that they have poetry in them. The director doesn't impose his poetry on them.

Porterfield discerns the limpid beauty in a quartet of teenage girls giggling their way through the woods, and a melancholy vitality in the way the dead man's loved ones celebrate his life at a barroom memorial, singing karaoke. Ex-cons determined to go straight or at least stay out of prison, boy-men acting out their fantasies on bikes or with paintballs, girls thrashing out their feelings in songs or wails and talking about life in tentative whispers — they make up Porterfield's cast of characters. An apartment that serves as a tattoo parlor, a tavern paneled like a recreation room — these are where Porterfield finds comedy and drama.

The movie starts with the sights and sounds of breezes blowing around the forlorn, empty crash house where Cody met his death. The way Porterfield shoots the rooms inside, the setting becomes oddly sensuous. He and his ace cinematographer, Jeremy Saulnier, sensitize you to the reflected light and refracted color that streak the dirty walls. "Putty Hill" is constantly finding hints of hardiness, exuberance, even splendor, beneath squalor, melancholy or teen attitude. In the first full sequence, a half-dozen kids wage a paintball war. Their strafing miraculously leaves splotches or ribbons of bright colors on forest browns and greens.

Anyone who dreads that "Putty Hill" will be "like watching paint dry" — as Gene Hackman so memorably said of Eric Rohmer films in "Night Moves" — should have their fear immediately dispelled. This film can generate kinetic force from the click of paintball guns or the whoosh of makeshift combat suits racing through the foliage. When a neophyte player slumps close to the camera and lifts his yellow-spattered helmet, the movie starts to generate a different sort of suspense. He's the brother of the dead man; his late brother's friends have invited him to play the game, presumably to take his mind off his loss. The funeral is tomorrow.

An unseen interviewer (Porterfield) gets this information out of him, and additional facts, too: He has a 5- or 6-year-old sister and another who goes to college in Delaware. He's close to the older sister. But the boy says he hasn't yet had time to grow equally close to the tyke. This simple, frank admission is such an unusual statement for a movie character to make that your ears prick up and your mind goes into high alert. This film takes nothing for granted. As the casual questions and answers flow back and forth, you follow the movie on two tracks — you assemble the relationships in your mind while getting to know the neighborhood as if you've just moved into it.

"Putty Hill" counterpoints semi-improvised group scenes like the paintball war and a visit to a skate-and bike park with totally improvised interviews. The structure never comes off as forced or schematic.

In this movie, action is character, but setting is also character — like a girl's graffiti-covered bedroom, in which a TV and a pet rodent both seem apt. Offhand utterances express character, too, in words that come out of nowhere and lodge in your mind.

Everyone in Cody's immediate family makes a vivid impression, including his frayed-at-the-edges, mourning mom, who can't find much comfort with her aged mother, who admits her use of denial when dealing with the death of her grandson. But the pivotal character, played by the one professional performer in the movie, singer-songwriter Sky Ferreira, is Cody's cousin. She's been living in Santa Monica, Calif., and she's not sure you can go home again.

Back in Baltimore for the funeral, she doesn't feel at home with her dad, who became a tattoo artist during a prison term and has never tried to reach out to her. She tells Porterfield that she hasn't cried since she was 12. When she returns to her dad's tattoo-parlor/pad, she blurts out her hatred for him (and for Baltimore) through her tears. Yet she may feel closer to her roots, and to her late relative, than she lets on. When, at the wake, she bawls out a rough, tingling rendition of "I Will Always Love You," the song sounds like a declaration, a fierce lament and a demand she puts upon herself. "Putty Hill" never settles for formula. It refuses to rest in peace.

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