Putty Hill provides an odd combination of seeming observation and plain set-up, producing peculiar and intriguing tensions.
Class is still the big divider in the U.S. It’s the thing we can’t get ourselves to talk about. We all think we’re divided along the lines of race, and we are: Baltimore is a very racially divided city. But I think as a nation, class is the big divider. Everybody thinks they’re middle class, but there’s such a big bracket there, and not everybody’s making the same or can afford the same amenities within this so-called middle class.
"Where do you go when you die?" James (James Siebor) looks young and a bit disheveled, but he doesn't hesitate to answer: “Wherever God decides to put you. That’s not really my question.” His off-screen interviewer doesn't ask what that question is. Instead, he asks where James' brother is going to go. "No idea yet," the boy says, adjusting his position as another paintballer, newly put out, sits down beside him.
In this early scene, Putty Hill sets up its basic dynamic, frequently illuminating and sometimes uneasy. Straddling an indefinite line between fiction and documentary, Matt Porterfield's film begins with the (fictional) idea that James' brother, 24-year-old Cory, is dead of a drug overdose. As Cory's friends and family gather in Baltimore for the funeral, the filmmaker -- playing that off-screen interviewer -- observes and occasionally queries them, his affect flat but also edgily intrusive, even as they respond with what seems a mix of openness and self-performance.
The film -- open now in New York and expanding in March -- focuses on subjects played by "non-professional actors," a phrase that suggests their roles here, as versions of themselves. They speak in locations that tell you something about them, for instance, a job (a tattoo artist, played by Charles Sauers, who laments his nephew's death and frankly explains that he went to prison for killing a man who raped his pregnant wife) or maybe a state of mind (Zoe [Zoe Vance] is approached as she's in transit: just off a bus from Delaware, she waits for her "dear old friends" to pick her up across the street from the bus station and the KFC, recalling that when she last saw Cory a month ago, "He didn’t look good then").
But even as you catch glimpses of the community that shapes each individual, you also learn very little of anyone's backstory. The interviews tend to end abruptly, like the first one with James or a later encounter with Cody (Cody Ray), who stops his surprisingly detailed ruminations on a skate park ("You got your random junkies come by stop to chat with you, ask for a couple of cents, 50 cents here and there, you got your drunks, you got your potheads, then you got your skateboarders, your BMXers tearing shit up everyday") to head up a hill and across the road in search of "a pickle and a pack of smokes."
The sequence of shots here illustrates the movie's ingenuity and ostensible disingenuousness: the camera watches the boys escape up the hill, boards in hand. It then cuts to the road and follows them inside the one-room shop, ensuring you're conscious of the fiction (this storyline is not about to "escape" anywhere), even as it lets you believe, if you want, that you're watching an undirected behavior rather than a plot point.
It's this odd combination of seeming observation and plain set-up that produces the film's peculiar and intriguing tensions. It never lets you believe it's a documentary, but in so doing, it raises questions about what documentaries can do. Its point of departure recalls Lance Hammer's Ballast, which also begins with an unexpected death, and its interviews follow on a scene in Gus Van Sant's Paranoid Park, another film featuring introspective skaters. Here, though, the interviews never quite invite you inside this other world. Instead, they underscore your (the film's) limited understanding.
This otherness is partly "regional" (one adjective applied to recent American independent cinema), partly class-based (as Porterfield suggests), and partly formal. This last is displayed in the essential disconnectedness of locations -- a swimming hole, a skate park, a bedroom where four girls wonder about appropriate funeral wear -- as well as in self-consciousness of the interview format. When Porterfield is first questioning Geoff (Drew Harris), up to his neck in an above ground pool (asked about Cory, he squints, "I think we were in junior high together"), the frame and water are suddenly crowded with teen girls' bodies. Geoff exits (quickly) and the interviewer is left to ask clumsy questions of the increasingly uncomfortable girls ("You like school?"), until they lose interest in him.
While a scene like this suggests the film just happens on random moments, others are more strategically dramatic, as when Spike's daughter Jenny (Sky Ferreira), returned from California, rages about his incessant immaturity. And still others insist on what you cannot know: as Cory's sister and a friend visit his last home the night after the funeral, the lack of light is literal. Their voices hang in the darkness, as they contemplate his lack of "stuff" and how he might have come to his lack of hope.
Their conversation is matter of fact. Moments later, the girls are back in the car, their voices fading out as the road ahead is transformed into an abstraction, the blurred lights in motion, going somewhere unknown. You're left to think about how "stuff" can matter.