Being authentic can be boring
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, March 4, 2011
Set in a Baltimore County neighborhood the local tourist office would never mention, "Putty Hill'' uses improvised dialogue and nonprofessional actors in a bid for authenticity. Yet some aspects of the production feel contrived, which is even more damaging to the movie than its lack of narrative drive.
"Putty Hill'' was made on a tiny budget by area native Matt Porterfield and employs a familiar cinematic premise: Someone has died, and now family and friends are trying to make sense of the loss. In this case, the departed is Cory, a 24-year-old who OD'd in a tumbledown house that is seen at both the movie's beginning and end.
Putty Hill life doesn't encourage family stability, so there are lots of half- and step-relatives, as well as kids who have been estranged for years. Chief among the latter is Cory's cousin Jenny (Sky Ferreira, a country singer who is the cast's
most experienced performer). She rates a rare emotional scene, in which she rants at her no-count father (Charles Sauers) a tattoo artist who did time for second-degree murder.
Jenny's outburst is atypical. Most of the characters are disaffected teens or 20-somethings, too cool (or stoned) to be very expressive. They play paintball, hang out at a local swimming hole and pass around a dope pipe. The adults, who include Jenny's glum grandmother, aren't much more forthcoming.
As out-of-towners straggle in, the mourners ponder what they're supposed to do (and wear). Eventually, everyone meets at a low-rent karaoke joint for the wake, which is as anticlimactic as the movie's ramshackle structure suggested.
In its favor, "Putty Hill'' is nicely photographed and includes moments of unaffected charm and serenity. It's also not one of those teen dramas in which all the actors seem to be 26 and employ a personal trainer. With their lumpy physiques and bad dye jobs, these kids clearly haven't been prettified for the camera. But that genuineness doesn't automatically make them interesting.
Simulating a documentary, the director interviews a few of his characters from off-camera. While Cory's death and some of the relationships are fictional, these chats are supposed to be genuine. That's believable, since they contribute so little to the story or the characterizations. The interviews merely impede the movie's already halting flow.
In a further attempt at realism, Porterfield uses live sound: Dog barks, skateboard shrieks and other ambient din compete with the dialogue. During the tattoo-artist interview, the inking machine makes so much noise that the sequence is subtitled. Yet the clatter is sometimes laced with cello music, whose lyricism is jarring. There may be room for beauty in the real Putty Hill, but it sounds out of place in this bleak approximation of life in the neighborhood.
Contains drug use, paintball violence and profanity.