Matt Porterfield, Putty Hill, 2011, still from a color film in 35 mm, 87 minutes.


STORY OF ABSENCE, OR ABSENCE OF STORY? Matt Porterfield’s second feature, Putty Hill, follows the tried-and-true template of a community brought together by a funeral, our surrogate an expat who has returned home. Set in a leafy, desolate-seeming suburb of Baltimore—a city defined in the last decade, fictionally, by The Wire—the film ports the discursive wait-and-see global-festival cinema indebted to Pedro Costa to an American working-class milieu. With the exception of singer Sky Ferreira (who, as the deceased’s cousin Jenny, belts out a song at the moving karaoke wake), the cast of young survivors consists of nonprofessionals who range from affectless to startlingly present.

The film is attuned to the reflection and exhausted solitude often occasioned by the death of someone near, and it feels less like a collection of scenes than a series of living portraits (group and otherwise) in which we observe dialogue occur: two skate heads walking into deep background, girls cracking wise on a forest wander. Not to mention the loud/soft drama of Jenny’s blow-up at her tattoo artist deadbeat dad. That logy mood, abetted by tight sound design, is intensified by many characters being in or fresh out of adolescence. Porterfield regularly sharpens focus on individual characters, asking questions from offscreen (as a nebulous interrogator). These candid moments, though the technique might sound affected on paper, bring out the characters’ self-possession, a weight of presence also conferred by strains of cello.

What the director has described as “an interest in the world first and storytelling second” can also feel hands-off and flat. The movie, which premiered in slightly different form at last year’s Berlinale, arrives theatrically with perhaps insurmountable praise: “It looks with as much perception and sympathy as it is possible for a film to look,” writes one critic, whereas another advocate calls Jeremy Saulnier’s cinematography as “essential” as Coutard’s for Godard (which, depending what you mean by “essential,” overlooks any of several similar slow-cinema gazes lensed globally in the past decade). There are also the bugaboos of “respect” for characters and the moniker of “regional cinema,” both problematic terms used by the filmmaker himself and echoed by critics. In any case, the critical enthusiasm comes as an ironic counterpoint to the objects of the praise, who at times so poignantly, like many of us in grief (or, as one character expresses, in its apparent absence), know not what to think.

Nicolas Rapold

Putty Hill opens Friday, February 18 at Cinema Village in New York before touring nationally. For more details, click here.