Rating: 3 stars
With “Sollers Point,” Baltimore filmmaker Matthew Porterfield’s fourth feature set in the working-class environs of his home town, the director stakes his claim as the poet laureate of the region’s losers and strivers. He’s like a gloomier cousin to his fellow Charm City director John Waters. Centering on 20-something Keith (McCaul Lombardi), a small-time drug dealer struggling to get back on his feet after two years in lockup and nine months of home detention, Porterfield, who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, creates a Dundalk-set tale that’s gritty and honest, yet somehow less utterly bleak than you’d expect, given its depressing subject matter. It transfixes, not with artifice or cheap sentiment, but with a strange alchemy of gloom and light.
The story itself is spare, verging on the slight, and meandering: Keith tries to make some money, in ways both legal and illegal, while attempting (and failing) to register for vocational training. He has a bitter ex (“Deadpool 2’s” Zazie Beetz), a nagging, emotionally withholding father (Jim Belushi) and a loving grandmother (Lynn Cohen). Elsewhere, his support structure ranges from the questionable to the downright dangerous. After some white-supremacist gang members show up outside his house — a holdover from his incarceration, during which he turned to the gang as a means of survival — Keith pays a visit to the group’s leader, a man called Mom (Michael Rogers). In that vivid meeting, Keith asks that he be left alone, and Mom expounds, mostly incomprehensibly, on concepts of honor and righteousness. The scene has, like much of the film, an energy that is prosaic and surreal. (Keith’s best friend, for instance, is black.)
Other characters come and go, including Keith’s responsible older sister (Marin Ireland), who has moved to Arlington; an art student he briefly flirts with while wandering through the campus of a community college (Maya Martinez); and an illegal-gun dealer named Wasp (Wass Stevens). Each encounter reveals another little data point about Keith, whom we eventually come to understand better than he seems to know himself. His poor life choices and hot temper make him hard to love, let alone like. Paradoxically, his rage is born of impotence at his circumstances, which are, as it happens, almost entirely self-inflicted.
Porterfield never asks for our pity, or even sympathy. Yet the Baltimore-bred Lombardi (grandson of the late football coach Vince Lombardi) exerts a gravitational pull on our attention, delivering a performance that mesmerizes, even as we can see where it’s going.
Is that destination a dead end? Hardly. But what “Sollers Point” accomplishes is a singular balancing act, compensating for the mood of heavy discouragement with only the slenderest thread of hope.
R. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains pervasive coarse language, drug use and some sexual material. 102 minutes.