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Putty Hill (A Movie Review)

Updated: Dec 22, 2023


Starring Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor Jr., Dustin Ray, Cody Ray, Charles "Spike" Sauers, Catherine Evans, Virginia Heath, Casey Weibust, Drew Harris and Marina Siebor.

Written by Matt Porterfield & Jordan Mintzer.

Directed by Matt Porterfield.

Distributed by Cinema Guild. 86 minutes. Not Rated.

Particularly in the early going, Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill is rather similar stylistically and tonally to Richard Linklater’s early 90s breakthrough indie production Slacker. Essentially it assays a bunch of short, gritty vignettes with random people going about their daily life. Periodically some will be interviewed by an unseen filmmaker. Others will not. They are doing things like playing paintball, singing karaoke, getting tattoos, skateboarding, swimming, watching TV, drinking, talking, walking, driving…. You get the idea.

All this works wonderfully to build a portrait of a community. (Linklater’s film was about Austin, Texas. This film is about the titular working-class suburb of Baltimore.)

However, Slacker continued on its mostly random way throughout – the characters rarely had much in common other than a community. Putty Hill eventually doubles back on certain characters and a vague plotline emerges (more a situation, I suppose). Putty Hill looks at the neighborhood as everyone is coming together for the funeral of a 24-year-old ex-con who died of an overdose.

Literally dozens of characters flit in and out of the film in these short vignettes – family, friends, girlfriends, friends of the family, acquaintances, fellow ex-inmates, essential strangers.

This becomes something of a double-edged sword for the film. It gives you a wonderful sense of the community, but at the same time the movie never settles on any of the characters for long enough for you to get a real handle on them.

In fact, with so many characters showing up in short little spurts – all portrayed by completely unknown actors (only Sky Ferreira has any name recognition at all, and that is as a singer, not as an actress) – it is a bit hard to keep track of who everyone is: what their relationship is with each other and the dead man.

Honestly, the reaction to the man’s death seems to be rather muted – even by his family. I’m not sure if this is supposed to be just a reflection that this guy’s eventual death was sadly predictable, but his sister seems to feel sort of inconvenienced by going to the service, his brother spends the day before the funeral playing paint ball and even his mother never once cries. Truth is the most emotional reaction to his death seems to be when his grandmother refuses to go to the funeral because she wants to remember things as they were.

I prefer to believe this is due to numbness on the characters’ part rather than indifference – but this is never really made clear.

And, in a very nice touch, when the eventual funeral happens it is more of an Irish wake. Everyone congregates at a local bar, talks briefly and inarticulately about the guy, then drinks, dances and sings into the night. It seems no one really knew him very well – even those who loved him. We never get to know him at all, we just see one very unrevealing photograph of him at the ceremony.

In the meantime, we get little glimpses of lots of other lives – a tattoo artist trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter, an ex-con trying to go straight, four girls living in a dumpy apartment and local kids hanging out at the skate park and local swimming hole. Life in Putty Hill seems to be mostly made up of boredom and desperation.

It’s all very realistic. Much of the dialogue was improvised, giving the speech a very natural feel, but also a slightly imprecise and meandering feel. However, that is always the problem with ad-libbed dialogue – the immediacy is usually worth the price of the occasional awkwardness as long as the actors have the improv skill, and for the most part the cast of Putty Hill does have this talent.

As a filmmaker, Porterfield has a wonderful visual eye and a nice, gritty feel behind the camera, but all things considered, Putty Hill feels a bit too disjointed to be completely satisfying. Then again, you could say that about Slacker, too, and Linklater has since gone on to make some truly great films including Before Sunrise, Dazed & Confused, School of Rock and Before Sunset. I hope we get to see where Porterfield can take us from here.

Ken Sharp

Copyright ©2011 All rights reserved. Posted: February 12, 2011.

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