Bubble: Soderbergh’s Low Budget Regional Indie

The principles that seem to be guiding Soderbergh’s career these days are his refusal to repeat himself, and the need to show both Hollywood and indiehood that he’s still full of surprises, and not be taken for granted.

That said, Soderbergh has not made a completely satisfying film in five years, since his breakthrough year in 2000, with the conventional but entertaining “Erin Brockovich,” that won Julia Roberts an Oscar, and the more stylistically daring but narratively flawed “Traffic,” for which he won the Best Director Oscar.

The half a dozen films Soderbergh has made in the interim show rough navigation between mainstream Hollywood, with such fluffy blockbusters as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Ocean’s Twelve,” European art cinema (“Solaris,” a disappointing remake of Tarkovsky’s great sci-fi, and one weak segment in the poorly constructed anthology, “Eros”) and small-budget indies, some terrible, like “Full Frontal,” and others, like “Bubble,” flawed but worthy of our attention.

“Bubble” is the first of the director’s six reported high-definition video projects to be released in conjunction with HDNet Films. Magnolia Pictures will release the film theatrically.

If Soderbergh’s name were not on screen, you would think you are watching a first film, due to the low-key stylistic devices and the absence of professional actors. “Bubble” is one of Soderbergh’s less accessible works: It takes a while to absorb the deliberate pacing, mundane vibes, and statis and ennui of these particular screen personae, all realistically played by a cast of local unknowns.

Though extremely short (about 73 minutes), the film is vastly uneven, with a mesmerizing first half and a disappointing second.  You can put your finger on the precise moment when the film loses its grasp. It’s the scene when one of the characters is murdered and a police investigation ensues, even though the murderer’s identity is predictable.

The good news about “Bubble” is that Soderbergh didn’t leave Hollywood for the American suburbs, the turf of most indie filmmakers, but headed to an uncharted territory: Blue-collar Ohio. Since most American films center on the middle and upper-middle classes, neglecting the poor and working classes, that aspect alone is commendable.

The film’ drab locale might invite comparisons to British filmmaker Mike Leigh, specifically “Vera Drake,” which revolved around a saintly working class abortionist in 1950s London, sentenced and jailed for her well-intentioned sins. Similarly, the protagonist of “Bubble” is Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a big, unattractive but friendly and generous middle-aged woman, who works in a doll factory and tends to the needs of her aging and infirm father.

The intimately scaled story centers on three employees of a dolls factory, whose lives become intertwined in unpredictable, even dangerous ways. There’s the aforementioned Martha, a conscientious worker, concerned with the group’s productivity level and the bonuses it might yield. Martha develops friendship with Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a handsome, apathetic youngster who lives in a trailer with his mother. Martha gives Kyle rides to work, shares lunches with him, during which she does most of the talking. Their lunch conversations are so numbingly bland that they’re funny.

Their steady, balanced (sort of) relationship is thrown out of control when a new, beautiful worker, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) shows up and immediately taking liking to Kyle, who responds in his own positive-passive way.

In the first reel, Soderbergh chronicles a financially depressed Ohio, where blue-collar workers live a seemingly normal but dull life. For whatever reason, Soderbergh doesn’t exploit the setting, which could have easily been used for more overtly horror effects. The scenes depicting the detailed work that goes into doll making are creepy, throwing a different light on children’s toys. In general, horror lurks beneath the surface, and when Rose is murdered by what seems to be an unmotivated act, Soderbergh steers clear of evoking terror or any strong emotions, instead letting the viewers unveil for themselves the frightening moral vacuum that underlines these lives.

In second reel, psychology and some motivation kick in, and so does the semblance of a plot. Martha, unselfconsciously plump (she’s often seen eating) and proudly red-haired, has developed a bond with Kyle, who’s half her age, though it’s not clear whether she’s interested in him romantically or sexually.

When the pretty Rose is hired as a temp worker, Martha first goes on the defensive, before showing signs of jealousy and discomfort. As the story’s “outsider,” Rose has the flashiest part. To make ends meet, she holds two jobs, and kindly Martha provides her rides too. When Rose goes to clean a woman’s house, she scandalizes Martha by taking a bath in the absent lady’s bathtub. She admits to Kyle that she was a rebel in high school and ran away from home as an adolescent. She’s a young mom of a two-year-old daughter, the product of an unhealthy relationship with a boyfriend (K. Smith).

With some chutzpah, Rose asks Martha to baby-sit while she goes out on a date, neglecting to tell her that the date is no other than Kyle. Rose and Kyle’s evening unfolds with the banality of leisure one expects from depressed small towns. It begins with a couple of drinks at the local pub, then continues with a visit to Kyle’s home, where Rose shows another facet of her personality by stealing valuables from Kyle

Soon after returning home, Rose’s former boyfriend show up, accusing Rose of stealing money from him. They have a vocal argument in front of a shocked Martha, who is further insulted when Rose tells her quite bluntly to mind her own business. The next morning, Rose is found strangled on her living room floor. Neither the police inspector (Decker Moody) nor the audience is in doubt about the killer’s identity. From then on, the film loses momentum and the last reel is tedious and bland, perhaps by design, though it doesn’t make the viewing more tolerable

For obvious reasons, I can’t describe in detail the last 15 minutes, but suffice is to say that, stylistically, Soderbergh finds a way to illuminate his protagonist, without really explaining her motivations. The film’s final shots of smiling, empty-faced dolls are yet another classic horror image that Soderbergh shows without imbuing it with any specific or generic meanings.

Some of the humor is subtle and intended, while other is unintentional and produced by our lack of knowledge or familiarity of how to react to this bizarre backwoods yarn. Hence, Martha’s father’s reaction to the news that his daughter is accused of murder is so bizarre and understated that the audiences laugh, out of shocking nervousness rather than contempt for the characters.

The actors under-acting and under-reaction to dramatic events tat would have shocked any character in a more conventional Hollywood flicks. The natural deadpan works particularly well for Doebereiner’s Martha, with her wide-eyed sameness, and Kyle, who remains unemotive, even when granted reaction shots to major secrets and revelations.

Each of the three central characters has a family companion, but all of these relationships, between Martha and her father, Kyle and his mother (Laurie Lee), and Rose and her daughter, are perfunctory and unstated. With no exception, all the characters, even the supporting ones, are weird and emotionless individuals who don’t know how–and are not used to–express their feelings or articulate their thoughts to others or to themselves.

The minimalist dialogue has a low-key realism that’s congruent with Soderbergh’s concise but understated direction. “Bubble” is very much a solo creation, for along with directing, Soderbergh has also photographed the film, crediting Peter Andrews, his pseudonym, and did the editing, formally attributed to Mary Ann Bernard.

The visual style is arbitrary and uneven, with low-key, naturalistic lighting and simple framing that changes into more audacious strokes, such as the mega-close-ups of Martha, particularly in the last chapter. In general, Soderbergh confuses and blurs the line between what’s vague and what’s morally or thematically ambiguous, a recurrent problem in most of his movies.

But Soderbergh should be praised for his non-ironic approach to his story and characters that directors like the Coen brothers would have used had. As it is, “Bubble” contrasts in many significant ways with the similarly themed “Fargo.”

Despite flaws, most of which are in Coleman Hough’s screenplay, there’s something strangely hypnotic, even mesmerizing, about the film. As the unusual story unfolds, it shifts from the mildly compelling to the surprisingly engaging in rather subtle ways.

Soderbergh is a good storyteller even when he works with such a slender and undernourished narrative. Though the movie is not really provocative – it’s too simple and vague – several images are haunting and will linger in your mind long after the screening is over.