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In the City of Desperate Living

Putty Hill (2011)

Andrew Laumann/Cinema Guild

Detroit is a city where people searching for work have abandoned whole neighborhoods. New Orleans is still in the process of rebuilding after Katrina. But it's Baltimore that has become the emblem of the problems facing America's working class. HBO's "The Wire" spent five seasons showing the nuances of the city and its war on drugs to a transfixed international audience. And now "Putty Hill," a small independent movie, shows what drugs have done to the white working-class sections of Baltimore as well.

A young man named Cory has died from an overdose; and people are gathering for the funeral. No one is particularly surprised that he died the way he died. His teenage cousin Jenny (Sky Ferreira) has flown in from California, using the funeral as a chance to reconnect with her ex-con father (Charles Sauers) and friends she hasn't seen in years. Cory had friends too: some met him in prison, and others knew him from around. But we don't primarily learn about the characters by watching them interact with each other. We barely even learn their names. Instead, an unseen narrator interviews them — in a skate park, during a break from paintballing, at the bus station — about their lives, their relationship with Cory and how they feel about the funeral.

The faux documentary style has been a smash hit on television — although primarily with comedies; so using it for a somber drama is an interesting stylistic choice by director Matthew Porterfield. The trouble is that all the characters act as if their words have been stolen from their mouths. Even in the pseudo interviews, they speak in monosyllables, using body language to demonstrate discomfort, unhappiness and hopelessness. Most of the actors are local teenage amateurs, but there's no reason why they couldn't have built their characters organically to show us how they are feeling. Either there was a lack of time for rehearsal or a failure of the director to enable his actors to bring everything he needed to the script.

Other American reviewers have hailed "Putty Hill's" depiction of working-class life as a breakthrough. In Britain — where soap operas are built solely around working-class life and it is common for movies specifically aimed at working-class people in certain regions to receive funding — this will not be as apparent. It's hard, though, to praise a movie mainly for filling an obvious and much-needed gap in American cinema. "Putty Hill" itself was obviously made with so little money that one scene has to be subtitled over the sound of a tattoo needle. But the poor lighting and the darkness of most of the film is oddly appropriate, none more so for the wonderful shot of Jenny coming back to her father's after a day out.

Still, the whole movie suffers in comparison to the similarly themed "Better Things," a British movie from 2009. The tensions and personalities of that movie were perfectly demonstrated by one character repeatedly — and silently — leaving a room every time his wife walked in. The nearest "Putty Hill" gets to that is when Jenny and three other girls are walking through some woods when two cops stop them. The girls make a few smart remarks, and the cops shoo them away. With more moments similar to that, "Putty Hill" could have achieved a kind of imperfect brilliance. Instead it's a movie that never comes close to its real potential.


Opened on June 17 in Britain.

Written and directed by Matt Porterfield, based on a scenario by Mr. Porterfield and Jordan Mintzer; director of photography, Jeremy Saulnier; edited by Marc Vives; art director, Sophie Toporkoff; costumes by Sara Jane Gerrish; produced by Mr. Mintzer, Steve Holmgren, Joyce Kim and Eric Bannat; released by ICA Cinema. Running time: 1 hour 27 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Sky Ferreira (Jenny), Zoe Vance (Zoe), James Siebor Jr. (James), Dustin Ray (Dustin), Cody Ray (Cody), Charles Sauers (Spike), Catherine Evans (Catherine), Virginia Heath (Virginia), Casey Weibust (Casey) and Drew Harris (Geoff).


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