‘Groundhog Day’ Meets T.S. Eliot in ‘Life of Significant Soil’

Brooklyn resident Michael Irish wrote, directed, and co-produced this stylish 2016 feature, which has a runtime of only 71 minutes. But 71 minutes is plenty, given the concept: Life of Significant Soil is structured so that it offers a dramatic indie version of Groundhog Day, where Addison (Charlotte Bydwell) and Conor (Alexis Mouyiaris) have fallen into a relationship rut that keeps them spinning their wheels.

Though the film’s website suggests a fantasy element similar to the 1993 Bill Murray comedy — “A struggling young couple is forced to relive the last day of their relationship over and over again” — the idea of a Groundhog Day seems more metaphorical here, given the bleak tone and the sad fact that relationships do often languish in harmful patterns. Here, those patterns and cyclical behaviors are suggested by such motifs as a broken air conditioner and the bugs it attracts.

You know the type of film you’re in for when an opening scene shows Addison peeing on a pregnancy test stick and then laying it on the bare stomach of her sleeping boyfriend. No “we need to talk.” This couple utters gradspeak, those snippets of profundity that always seem more profound to those participating in the discussion than to those who are eavesdropping. Those using gradspeak often need to be recognized as significant, with their own sense of selfhood taking center stage. They are often so interested in expressing themselves and being validated that they’re unable to listen well enough to communicate authentically.

That sometimes seems true of Addison and Conor. For two people in a relationship actually trying to communicate with one another, there’s surprisingly little honest expression or emotions. Whatever negotiations they have seem as detached as when Addison submerges herself in the bathtub to “see the future” and announces, with no hint of feeling, “I saw you dying today, underwater.” His response is equally meh. They need each other, but they’re not sure why. Or even if they’re right in assessing that “need”.

Life of Significant Soil won the Brooklyn Pride Award at the Brooklyn Film Festival, and as the festival’s website sadly notes, the film is dedicated to “Lex (who plays Conor), who passed away before the completion of the film.” Mouyiaris does a fine job as Conor, even as he’s overshadowed by Bydwell and her character that’s given more pain to explore.

Irish told an interviewer, “I know that breakups can be sensitive, and people are always quick to place the blame on the other person. That was a big driver for the way the film was written, to try and be more honest than that.” Yet, if actions are facts, the facts argue for Addison and against Conor, who has been having an affair with another woman (Anna Jack) for the past three months and continues to do so, even leaving the girlfriend he got pregnant on a night when she’s desperately incapacitated and needing him more than ever.

Maybe viewers in their late 20s, early 30s will be more sympathetic toward these angsty underachievers with no visible means of support, but I found the characters frustrating to watch. Undercutting their vulnerability and sense of being trapped in a relationship are some of the lines that they speak. A perfect example occurs when Addison recounts the litany of Conor’s infractions, how he “taught her how to fuck” and made her what he wanted her to be, “and now I’m ruined, I’m a fraction of a person.” Is it me, or does one half of that brief monologue reveal a very astute and aware person, while the other half betrays a naïve one? Whether you accept that contradiction as evidence of complexity or consider it merely a contradiction may determine how you respond to the characters.

On the one hand these seem to be smart people, while on the other hand they seem numb or at least used to the idea of being rut-dwellers. When Addison says, “I think I should get an abortion today” and adds, “Con, this is real,” there’s not much reaction from him other than to tell her he thought she needed an appointment and couldn’t just walk in. “I know a guy who knows a guy,” she says. And this otherwise smart young woman gets into a pickup truck with a virtual stranger (Don Bajema) who tells her she’d better drive because he’s been drinking all day, and she goes with him to get a legal procedure from an illegal source? A ballerina whom we see practicing alone in the studio in several snippets? Sorry, but I’m not buying it.

Same with an earlier scene in a doctor’s office, where Mr. M.D. is looking at Addison’s eyes and remarks about them in a way that makes the couple think that there’s a serious problem. After the doctor waves it off as just a fascination of his he then addresses Conor by his first name and asks him to play a word association — though the patient is Addison. It’s a strange, unreal scene that may remind those of a certain generation of TV-watchers of the old Dr. Bombay shenanigans from Bewitched — an even stranger thing for a reviewer to say because the film’s title comes from high, not low art. “Life of Significant Soil” is the last phrase of the third of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, in which Eliot earlier writes of “the trailing / Consequence of further days and hours, / While emotion takes to itself the emotionless / Years of living among the breakage / Of what was believed in as the most reliable— / And therefore the fittest for renunciation.”

But Eliot also writes, “It seems, as one becomes older, / That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence — / Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy / Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution, / Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.” So is Eliot suggesting that a person’s attitude toward the past, toward repetition, toward the pattern of “years of living among the breakage” might indeed vary according to age? Besides, it may be unfair to critique these characters as people whose actions aren’t logically motivated when their actions seem to carry so much symbolic weight.

Maybe there’s a level here that even people the same age as the characters can’t access. Irish told an interviewer that this 71-minute film took five years to make, and the first-rate lighting and camerawork attest to that. “It is a very difficult process. I could try and explain it, but I’ve sort of just resigned to the fact that the only people who will understand are other independent filmmakers. It’s a little like jazz players. They can sit around and tell me what I’m missing in the song, but the only ones who can really hear it the way they [play] are the guys who play it. I know this may sound pretentious or something and I don’t mean it to be.” Maybe he’s right. Maybe to truly “get” an indie film it takes an indie filmmaker… or in this case, a closer reading or rereading of Eliot.

Life of Significant Soil is distributed by Candy Factory Films and presented in 16×9 (1.78:1, actually) aspect ratio. There are no bonus features.

RATING 6 / 10