By Jason Anderson

There’s an ocean between what used to be Fontainhas and what remains Putty Hill. But watching Matt Porterfield’s second feature—named after the Baltimore suburb where the film takes place, and where the director was raised—it’s hard not to feel like both places could share the same decrepit corner of the world, even if only one of them has a Sbarro franchise. Over here in Putty Hill, the traces of Pedro Costa’s influence—which Porterfield has the good sense to cop to—are visible in everything from the frank, unvarnished performances by the largely non-professional cast (many of whom essentially play themselves) to the way the camera lovingly lingers on a scuffed-up living-room wall. And while Porterfield’s sophomore feature may ultimately be too modest to really stand in the company of In Vanda’s Room (2000), it does demonstrate that Costa’s arte povera aesthetic may be well-suited not just to the decaying communities in America’s rust-belt cities, but to the kind of young, poor, and troubled people who are usually banished from the American cinema, unless they’re pointing guns at each other and/or can be played by one or both Affleck brothers.

Once a prosperous capital of steel, cement, and sugar, Baltimore has become a go-to symbol of post-industrial stagnation and collapse, depicted as the bleakest of American burgs in everything from Homicide: Life on the Streets to The Wire to the first two installments of Disney’s Step Up franchise. Which makes it all the more remarkable that Porterfield is able to show the viewer another face of the city, as the rundown neighbourhood of Putty Hill—presented as an array of weed-strewn strip-mall parking lots, highway underpasses, backyard pools, and unfinished basements—gains a temporary sense of coherence and community (at least for its more youthful inhabitants) through the loss of one of the kids’ own: a young man named Cory whose death by drug overdose precedes the events of the film. Defying its quintessentially no-hope settings, Putty Hill finds an ineradicable life force in its grubby milieu: if we’ve seen the likes of Putty Hill in an earlier entry in the canon of Baltimore movies, it’s in the neighbourhoods that John Waters featured in the rather more jovial Pecker (1998) and A Dirty Shame (2004). (Unsurprisingly, everyone’s favourite pervy uncle gets thanked in Putty Hill’s credits.)

A teacher in the film and media studies program at Johns Hopkins, Porterfield has one other feature to his credit, Hamilton (2007), a film about two days in the life of very young parents, named after another northeastern Baltimore neigbourhood. Porterfield shot Putty Hill on the fly in the summer of 2009 after two years of preparation on another film, Metal Gods, which he describes as “a coming-of-age tale about a group of metal-heads.” When financing fell through, Porterfield developed another scenario that he could do with many of the actors he’d already cast, and others he’d discovered in the process. (Porterfield found Charles Sauers—Spike, the hulking tattoo artist who may be the film’s most enigmatic figure—in a bar around the corner from where the director grew up.)

On paper, Putty Hill consisted of a five-page treatment with one line of written dialogue and 15 precise locations that Porterfield planned to use. The rest was developed through improvisation, with the on-camera “interviews” between characters and an unseen interlocutor becoming the film’s most distinctive tactic, if not its most successful. The interviewer’s dispassionate tone—he sounds like a sociology grad student who’s already decided on the outcome of his study—and occasionally too-on-the-nose questions—e.g., “where do you go when you die?”—can add an excessively arch aspect to these scenes, even as the strategy does yield some great moments of candour.

Inevitably, some actors fare better than others in this not-quite-one-or-the-other zone. Introduced in an exquisitely weird forest-set paintball sequence that opens the film—a showcase of phony deaths in a movie about a phony death—James Siebor is heartbreakingly tentative as James, Cory’s shell-shocked younger brother. Cory’s sister Zoe (Zoe Vance) is more guarded in her interview sequence, but seems to relax in the company of three friends who she hasn’t seen since leaving Baltimore six years before. (Every family here seems to have been broken and reassembled many times over.) The scene in which Zoe and her pals swim in a river also suggests that it’s not accurate to describe Putty Hill as a strictly urban movie. Along with the paintball battle, the river idyll presents the characters enjoying the great outdoors, albeit the kind where Avon Barksdale’s crew dumped a body or two. (Indeed, the girls have a memorably snarky encounter with a pair of police officers pursuing a bank robber.)

Putty Hill’s third key youngster is Jenny (Sky Ferreira), Cory’s cousin and the estranged daughter of Spike. Since the sad-eyed girl claims to have not been especially close to Cory or his family, it’s implied that she’s used her cousin’s funeral as a chance to visit Spike. But the reunion causes little but anguish for her, which Ferreira expresses with varying degrees of effectiveness: a late-night/early-morning breakdown at Spike’s apartment is one of several scenes that go long for the sake of going long, though to be fair, the same sequence does make stunning use of Jeremih’s ultra-sleazoid slow-jam “Birthday Sex.”

Even if Spike cannot connect with his daughter, Porterfield elicits a more sympathetic view of the man than many filmmakers might have, and all without a speck of sentimentality. As he explains to a client early on, Spike served time on a second-degree murder conviction, having killed a man who raped his pregnant wife (it’s unclear whether she was Jenny’s mother). His position on the rehabilitative possibilities of prison is unequivocal: “Anyone who says jail does anybody any good is a fucking liar.” The point is echoed in sentiments expressed elsewhere by Dustin (Dustin Ray), a former cellmate who is the friend most distraught by Cory’s death. He talks about going to trade school and trying to stay straight, evidently fearing that the smallest slip-up will send him on the same trajectory as the one that killed Cory. Zoe is even more direct about the effects of prison on her brother, who’d served time on a minor drug charge. “I feel like he gave up when he was in jail,” she says. “That was the end.” Such moments are powerful reminders of the fates of countless young men and their families in a country that respects freedom so much that it boasts one of the world’s highest incarceration rates.

A friend of Zoe’s who remembers Cory from his visits to the local skate park, Cody (Jimee Buchanon) is more light-hearted: we see him at home with his mom and girlfriend, then hanging with other skateboarders and BMXers. He’s also a link between Cory and this park, which was possibly the only place where he was admired. (We can gather as much from the homage that another skater pays to him in graffiti form; Porterfield thoughtfully provides subtitles for the indecipherable tag). There’s a similar sense of sweetness in Putty Hill’s penultimate sequence, which depicts a combination of wake and karaoke party. Cory’s sad, tired mother Cathy (Cathy Evans) looks on as the bereaved express their pain, sing some songs, and dance with little girls too young to understand what they’re doing there. Unfortunately, this is also a scene that many viewers will only be able to see in radically altered form when Putty Hill enters wider distribution in early 2011: since they were unable to clear the scene’s use of “Wild Horses” from the ever-vigilant overseers of the Rolling Stones’ back catalogue, Porterfield and his team had to reshoot the sequence last November.

Rendered with startling power by Jenny, “I Will Always Love You” has hopefully avoided the same fate. That’s the last song we hear before we leave this place of light and love and head deep into the darkness: to the abandoned house where Cory died, a place desolate enough to make the film’s other locations seem positively ostentatious. The visitors are understandably disturbed at the sight, not so much because of its condition but what it suggests about Cory’s last days: “I don’t see how you can let yourself get to a point like this,” says one of the girls. Thus are we left the hope that Cory’s contemporaries will do whatever they can to avoid his fate. It’s not triumph-of-the-human-spirit territory, but as Porterfield makes patently clear, this part of Baltimore doesn’t exactly breed that kind of thing. For these kids in these circumstances, a little bit of grace is plenty.

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