Matthew Porterfield’s fourth feature, starring newcomer McCaul Lombardi and Jim Belushi, follows a young man’s attempts to forge a new life after completing his prison sentence.
Out of jail but not yet back in the swing of things — that in-between state has sparked countless movies, from genre thrillers to quiet character studies. In Sollers Point, Matthew Porterfield puts his distinctive stamp on this classic setup with the story of a young man who’s caught between the impulse to slide back and the longing to leap forward. Working again in his native Baltimore, the writer-director maintains the documentary-style feel for place that has infused all his features. But like his previous outing, I Used to Be Darker, the new work mines more straightforward, less impressionistic territory than did Hamilton or Putty Hill.
A kind of urban pastoral, the well-cast, handsomely shot movie unfolds as a series of encounters, each one an attempt by the central character to find his footing in his hardscrabble working-class community, on the edges of the city near the waterfront. Those attempts aren’t always calm, wise or productive — in fact, they can be exasperatingly foolish. But under Porterfield’s compassionate gaze, the deliberately paced drama builds toward a quickening of emotional connection.
With a few familiar faces in its ensemble, including a terrific Jim Belushi, the San Sebastian competition title is likely to find the largest audience yet for the Baltimore auteur when Oscilloscope brings it to North American theaters in 2018.
In his first lead role, McCaul Lombardi, who appeared in American Honey and Patti Cake$, has a wiry, hungry intensity as 24-year-old Keith, but it’s his contradictory qualities of cockiness and contrition that set the character apart. After a year in prison for a crime whose details are never spelled out, Keith is completing his probationary period of house arrest and chafing under the watchful eye of his father, Carol (Belushi). His lifelong friend and ex-girlfriend, Courtney (Zazie Beetz, of Atlanta), wants nothing to do with him, a fact that he’s not quite ready to accept.
But Keith understands quite clearly what’s happening when prison life follows him to his father’s front door in the form of a trio of gang members. He declines their menacingly friendly offer to “help you transition,” and one of them, Aaron (Tom Guiry), makes it his purpose to harass and torment Keith, setting off an escalating series of reprisals.
Porterfield taps into crime-saga tropes of dread, backsliding and retaliation without turning them into the engines of his story. Building tension around threatening confrontations, he frequently defuses it in ways that are realistically comical or anticlimactic. His interest is not the pull of the streets per se, but Keith’s exposure and vulnerability as a freshly minted ex-con — how does he move beyond the label and the shame it ignites in him?
Though he does his best to avoid meaningful conversation with his dad, Keith seeks connection elsewhere, even when he can’t always meet the gaze of people who care for him. Between online HVAC courses and odd jobs that include hauling recyclables and dealing drugs, he keeps in touch with his older sister (Marin Ireland) and finds a crucial ally in an aspiring musician friend, Marquis (Brieyon Bell-El). Not always playing by the assumed rules of the game, he variously chats up or shuts down a number of women, including a stripper (Everleigh Brenner), an arty, middle-class college girl (Maya Martinez) and a pissed-off former hookup (Imani Hakim).
The most memorable encounters encompass a disparate range of characters who powerfully reflect Keith’s surroundings as well as his inner turmoil. A part of him basks in the grandmotherly attentions of Lynn Cohen’s loving Ladybug, but he also feels unworthy. His interactions with a strung-out junkie (a heart-wrenching Alyssa Bresnahan) take him unexpectedly beyond his narrow self-interest; they also involve the film’s least anticipated jolt of brightness.
But when Keith, not finding the father figure he wants in Carol, seeks guidance from a mechanic named Mom (Michael Rogers), the hoped-for light eludes him. Mom may represent strength forged in the crucible of prison, but the surpassingly strange dogma he spouts about dignity, morality and integrity while rolling his own rose-petal cigarettes has an unsettling emphasis on the white man. Keith’s disappointment is apparent, but so, too, is the need for decisive action that could lead him deeper into Mom’s realm.
The crisp compositions and crystalline lighting of Shabier Kirchner’s cinematography provide a strong, unfussy framework for the workaday settings. An eloquent long shot of Keith in a cemetery is the closest the DP comes to a self-consciously stylized visual. Just as the characters’ conversations are filled with such life-as-it’s-lived details as supermarket specials and the ins and outs of Medicaid and disability insurance, the backgrounds and peripheries of the frames reveal offhand yet telling glimpses of the neighborhood, as in a boozy bit of fishmongering among a group of bar patrons.
The episodic story’s energy ebbs in its second half, but then redoubles in a couple of particularly piercing scenes involving Belushi. He brings a brokenhearted soulfulness to his role, whether Carol is pleading for mercy for his boy or wielding a staple gun with a world-weary sense of usefulness.
Without devolving into psychological explanations for the disconnect between father and son, Porterfield makes it felt in Keith’s increasing volatility. Lombardi’s shifts from brooding to impetuous bring his struggle to the surface without overplaying it or pandering to audience sympathy. However maddening it can be to watch some of Keith’s rash actions, however inexcusable they may be, his hope, frustration and desperation are always understandable. And when a close friend laments, “I really thought he was gonna come out of this stronger,” Porterfield all but draws us into the conversation, and we grasp both sides of the argument.
Production companies: Hamilton Film Group, Le Bureau
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Cast: McCaul Lombardi, Zazie Beetz, Jim Belushi, Tom Guiry, Marin Ireland, Brieyon Bell-El, Lynn Cohen, Imani Hakim, Kazy Tauginas, Alyssa Bresnahan, Michael Rogers, Wass Stevens, Everleigh Brenner, Maya Martinez, Ashley Shelton
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Porterfield
Producers: Eric Bannat, Alexandra Byer, Gabrielle Dumon, Jordan Mintzer, Ryan Zacarias
Executive producers: Nancy Dwyer, Jack Dwyer, Wally Hall, Le Tong, Eric Franklin, Alexandro Bell
Director of photography: Shabier Kirchner
Production designer: Sara K. White
Costume designer: Elizabeth Warn
Editor: Marc Vives
Venue: San Sebastian Film Festival (Official Selection)