Less experimental than contrary, Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble offers up a series of sacrificial objects, with remarkably little sympathy for any of them. It opens on images from Belpre, Ohio — a woman’s wide face in close-up, then quick, dull cuts to her father’s (Omar Cowan) bedroom and close-quartered kitchen, both glimpsed through doorways, distanced and small-seeming. Blank, pale, unreadable, Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) sets to her routine. She feeds her father, sits him in front of the television, then drives to pick up her much younger coworker, Kyle (Dustin James Ashley).
At the donut shop, she buys coffee and a twister, then gets Kyle to pose for a snapshot: “You’re my best friend,” she says, “and I need to get a picture of you.” He goes along, his lanky body betraying some measure of weariness and boredom, as well as an easygoing nature. He’s sweet, unformed, compliant. They work at a doll factory, housed in a long prefab building that first appears from a distance as they cross a nearly empty parking lot to reach it. Kyle works at a machine that molds plastic heads and limbs — arm after arm pressed out, tumbled onto sorting surfaces. Martha glues on little synthetic wigs.
Profoundly bland, Martha and Kyle might be content. Or maybe not. Their relationship shifts in the next few days, when a new girl comes to work at the factory. Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) is a single mom who smokes cigarettes on break, a habit she shares with Kyle. Martha watches as they smile quietly at one another over their fast food lunches. The camera’s focus on her face lets you know to attend to her jealousy, and also to judge it: her “best friend,” who lives at home with his unemployed mother (Laurie Lee), has found someone his own age. Martha looks threatened. Trouble ahead.
If Bubble‘s premise — that a small-town, go-nowhere existence is depressing, even maddening — isn’t exactly news, it might count as insight. Then again, the film isn’t much concerned with news or newness in a conventional sense. Instead, it is about process, hidden, slow-moving, dimly desperate. Written by Coleman Hough and shot in HD video, it focuses on details, making the mundane seem intriguing, in a vaguely perverse, probing sort of way. The camera frames the dolls’ unfinished faces, their plasticness popped wide by shaping blasts of air, then sucked tight over scary-bright blue eyes. The dolls are lifeless objects, their vacuity and duplication unsubtle metaphors for Martha’s existence.
The film’s grander design — beyond its occasional condescension or casting of nonprofessionals or even Soderbergh’s seeming interest in someone else’s everydayness — has to do with distribution revolution, as or perhaps just anticipating an inevitable, not-so-far-off future, wherein films are released as DVDs and to theaters and tv all at once. The first of six films Soderbergh has contracted to make with the cable network HDNet Films, Bubble was made for just $1.7 million. Released to a limited number of theaters on Friday, to DVD and tv Tuesday, it represents what Soderbergh sees as the unavoidable present-future of movie production and distribution. As such, it’s also generating concern in some quarters. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, says, “I consider it a death threat” (Newsweek, 23 January 2006).
The film’s slender plot mimics this nebulous sense of menace. Rose embodies the new Rose, hired to help with a “big order,” paints lips and applies eyelashes, finishing touches she’s asked to perform because she has experience — airbrushing at a mall. As the three workers adjust to their new arrangement, Martha chats with the kids at lunch, listens to Rose’s background story (previously, she was “a professional ass-wipe” at a nursing home, a job she compares to her new one: “I’m ready to get out of this area,” she sighs. “Because there’s nothing here, everything’s poor.” As Rose represents another option, Kyle’s intrigued. Martha’s worried.
When Rose asks Martha to drive her to a second job — she cleans houses some afternoons — the older woman wanders through the rooms, looking through framed family photos, checking knick-knacks. But even as she’s okay with going through someone else’s stuff, and surely impressed with the size (“You could fit my whole house into two rooms”), Martha is shocked to come upstairs and find Rose, not scrubbing, but soaking in the bathtub. Rose registers Martha’s unease, and assures her that she doesn’t do this “all the time,” but only because her back is “bad” from her time at the nursing home.
Still, the incident, which takes all of two minutes on screen, lays out still more differences between the women, and shows again that Martha judges Rose. While Martha is mostly unable to articulate her anxiety, it becomes visible when she learns that Rose has asked her to babysit on Friday night so that Rose and Kyle can go out on a date. When Kyle arrives to pick up Rose — he’s borrowed his mom’s car — Martha’s cheeks flush. He observes the “weird vibe” to Rose, and decides not to go back inside when he drops her off after their dullsville date: drinks at a bar, a brief visit in Kyle’s bedroom while his mom watches tv in the next room, Rose stealing Kyle’s money while he goes to fetch beers.
But if Martha can’t speak it, her frustration is reflected variously — in a brief heated exchange between Rose and her ex (K. Smith), in her own father’s fatigued acquiescence to his routine, in her brief moment in church, as the camera shows her suddenly isolated and bathed in harsh white light. This last image is especially haunting, as it recurs, under different circumstances, later in the film. Martha remains inscrutable in these frames, her blank face left open to your interpretation, a working-class, unglamorous, intensely limited version of those more famous faces similarly bathed in light, seemingly aching to be read: Garbo, Dietrich, Jennifer Jones (as in, The Song of Bernadette). Martha, unlike these icons, offers no hope. Martha inspires only despair and maybe derision. The film doesn’t push you to identify with her, or admire her, but only to be glad you’re not her. And that’s disturbing.