Putty Hill

Putty Hill

Cinema Guild

Matt Porterfield’s second feature, “Putty Hill,” is a harrowing look at a troubled Baltimore neighborhood that seems on the verge of caving in on itself or being swallowed up by the woods that surround it. In many ways, this is a film of our times: it captures well the adverse effects of our current economic malaise on families and especially on young people.

While Porterfield’s subject matter is an overall downer—although with welcome signs of hope here and there—the sophistication of all aspects of his filmmaking, especially his strong hand with mise-en-scène, should be deeply encouraging to anyone concerned about the state of the American art film. “Putty Hill” at times has a Gus Van Sant look to it, but the filmmaking is actually more in line with the challenging work of Charles Burnett.

The film begins with kids playing an ominous game of paintball in the woods. When Porterfield breaks into documentary mode and directly interviews one of the boys (James Siebor Jr.), we learn that his older brother, Cory, has recently died from a drug overdose.

Porterfield’s technique is to gradually build a convincing and devastating portrait of this family and even this community by interspersing throughout the film a series of these interviews. They come to function almost like short stories that in the end add up to a fulfilling short story collection.

When the director finally brings most of the characters together near the end of the film for Cory’s beer-soaked funeral party, the effect is overwhelming in a subtle kind of way. We have a clear sense by then of how loosely connected all these people actually are and an inkling of how they could easily spin off in a hundred directions from one another in the near future.

Porterfield makes a point in the interviews of asking each character probing questions, such as whom he or she is closest to, teasing out this web of complex yet tenuous relations. While all the characters in “Putty Hill” are in some way connected to Cory, the interviews reveal how no one among them seems to know Cory all that well. Many in his circle, it becomes apparent, also barely know one another—even when they are living in the same house.

The film’s best interview—also one of its finest scenes—is with Jenny (Sky Ferreira), a California teen and Cory’s cousin, who is in town just for the funeral. Porterfield interviews her as she takes a beautifully shot cab ride through the neighborhood at twilight with the window open, her long blond hair blowing about her face. When the director asks if she has ever known anyone who has died before, she slowly and sincerely rattles off a list of people she has only heard of: “Elvis, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, George Washington.” What a great way to underscore the disconnection at the heart of “Putty Hill”: Jenny, as young as she is, probably knows more about these figures of popular culture than she does about her own family members.

The film really has no central character, although Jenny would come closest to fulfilling that role. Her real intent for being in Baltimore, more than for the funeral, is to reunite with her estranged father (Charles “Spike” Sauers), an ex-convict and tattoo artist whose communication skills leave much to be desired. Staying at his place turns out to be disastrous for Jenny, as he is constantly giving tattoos in his living room, where he allows a hard-partying atmosphere with his customers.

The film reaches its heartbreaking climax as Jenny, after a horrible fight with her father, belts out a karaoke version of “I Will Always Love You” at Cory’s funeral. This does not come off as melodramatic as it may sound. In fact, Porterfield is successful because he rigidly sticks to his low-key approach from start to finish, even in the funeral scene. This is highly disciplined filmmaking.

“I Will Always Love You” sneaks up on us, at first somehow funny and then somehow tragic: it becomes a moment of high emotion in a film that has had so few. It raises the question of what kind of a turning point this experience has been for Jenny and for the others gathered at the funeral.

Porterfield follows this bravura set piece with a dark coda to the film—literally dark—as Cory’s sister (Zoe Vance) and his girlfriend break into the abandoned house where Cory’s life came to its close. The film’s final moments play out in near-total darkness with Cory’s sister musing, “I don’t understand how you can let yourself get to a point like this.”

Whether or not his finale completely works, Porterfield is to be commended for such bold filmmaking. It is almost a cliché these days to say of a young filmmaker that we are eager to see whatever he or she will come up with next, but Porterfield’s confidence in making many unusual choices in “Putty Hill” definitely puts him at the front of the pack of up-and-coming American directors to keep an eye on.

It is clear that Porterfield places great faith in the power of film and in art itself as an enlightening part of our daily lives. He never hits us over the head with it, but almost all of the characters are seen involved in some kind of creative work—from Cory’s little brother writing a vampire novel to one of Cory’s friends movingly paying tribute to him with graffiti on a blank red wall. Putty Hill may not be the greatest place to live in the world, but Porterfield, with immense respect for these people, shows how even in hellish circumstances that itch to create something, anything, can do a lot toward raising us out of our despair.

Cast

Jenny – Sky Ferreira

Zoe Vance

James Siebor Jr.

Dustin Ray

Cody Ray

Charles “Spike” Sauers

Catherine Evans

Virginia Heath

Casey Weiburst

Drew Harris

Marina Seibor

Credits

A Cinema Guild release.

Written and Directed by Matt Porterfield.

Produced by Jordan Mintzer, Steve Holmgren, Joyce Kim, and Eric Bannat.

Director of Photography, Jeremy Saulnier.

Editor, Marc Vives.

Sound Mix, Ben Goldberg.

Running time: 87 minutes.

 Cinema Guild

Matt Porterfield’s second feature, “Putty Hill,” is a harrowing look at a troubled Baltimore neighborhood that seems on the verge of caving in on itself or being swallowed up by the woods that surround it. In many ways, this is a film of our times: it captures well the adverse effects of our current economic malaise on families and especially on young people.

While Porterfield’s subject matter is an overall downer—although with welcome signs of hope here and there—the sophistication of all aspects of his filmmaking, especially his strong hand with mise-en-scène, should be deeply encouraging to anyone concerned about the state of the American art film. “Putty Hill” at times has a Gus Van Sant look to it, but the filmmaking is actually more in line with the challenging work of Charles Burnett.

The film begins with kids playing an ominous game of paintball in the woods. When Porterfield breaks into documentary mode and directly interviews one of the boys (James Siebor Jr.), we learn that his older brother, Cory, has recently died from a drug overdose.

Porterfield’s technique is to gradually build a convincing and devastating portrait of this family and even this community by interspersing throughout the film a series of these interviews. They come to function almost like short stories that in the end add up to a fulfilling short story collection.

When the director finally brings most of the characters together near the end of the film for Cory’s beer-soaked funeral party, the effect is overwhelming in a subtle kind of way. We have a clear sense by then of how loosely connected all these people actually are and an inkling of how they could easily spin off in a hundred directions from one another in the near future.

Porterfield makes a point in the interviews of asking each character probing questions, such as whom he or she is closest to, teasing out this web of complex yet tenuous relations. While all the characters in “Putty Hill” are in some way connected to Cory, the interviews reveal how no one among them seems to know Cory all that well. Many in his circle, it becomes apparent, also barely know one another—even when they are living in the same house.

The film’s best interview—also one of its finest scenes—is with Jenny (Sky Ferreira), a California teen and Cory’s cousin, who is in town just for the funeral. Porterfield interviews her as she takes a beautifully shot cab ride through the neighborhood at twilight with the window open, her long blond hair blowing about her face. When the director asks if she has ever known anyone who has died before, she slowly and sincerely rattles off a list of people she has only heard of: “Elvis, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, John Lennon, John F. Kennedy, George Washington.” What a great way to underscore the disconnection at the heart of “Putty Hill”: Jenny, as young as she is, probably knows more about these figures of popular culture than she does about her own family members.

The film really has no central character, although Jenny would come closest to fulfilling that role. Her real intent for being in Baltimore, more than for the funeral, is to reunite with her estranged father (Charles “Spike” Sauers), an ex-convict and tattoo artist whose communication skills leave much to be desired. Staying at his place turns out to be disastrous for Jenny, as he is constantly giving tattoos in his living room, where he allows a hard-partying atmosphere with his customers.

The film reaches its heartbreaking climax as Jenny, after a horrible fight with her father, belts out a karaoke version of “I Will Always Love You” at Cory’s funeral. This does not come off as melodramatic as it may sound. In fact, Porterfield is successful because he rigidly sticks to his low-key approach from start to finish, even in the funeral scene. This is highly disciplined filmmaking.

“I Will Always Love You” sneaks up on us, at first somehow funny and then somehow tragic: it becomes a moment of high emotion in a film that has had so few. It raises the question of what kind of a turning point this experience has been for Jenny and for the others gathered at the funeral.

Porterfield follows this bravura set piece with a dark coda to the film—literally dark—as Cory’s sister (Zoe Vance) and his girlfriend break into the abandoned house where Cory’s life came to its close. The film’s final moments play out in near-total darkness with Cory’s sister musing, “I don’t understand how you can let yourself get to a point like this.”

Whether or not his finale completely works, Porterfield is to be commended for such bold filmmaking. It is almost a cliché these days to say of a young filmmaker that we are eager to see whatever he or she will come up with next, but Porterfield’s confidence in making many unusual choices in “Putty Hill” definitely puts him at the front of the pack of up-and-coming American directors to keep an eye on.

It is clear that Porterfield places great faith in the power of film and in art itself as an enlightening part of our daily lives. He never hits us over the head with it, but almost all of the characters are seen involved in some kind of creative work—from Cory’s little brother writing a vampire novel to one of Cory’s friends movingly paying tribute to him with graffiti on a blank red wall. Putty Hill may not be the greatest place to live in the world, but Porterfield, with immense respect for these people, shows how even in hellish circumstances that itch to create something, anything, can do a lot toward raising us out of our despair.

Cast

Jenny – Sky Ferreira

Zoe Vance

James Siebor Jr.

Dustin Ray

Cody Ray

Charles “Spike” Sauers

Catherine Evans

Virginia Heath

Casey Weiburst

Drew Harris

Marina Seibor

Credits

A Cinema Guild release.

Written and Directed by Matt Porterfield.

Produced by Jordan Mintzer, Steve Holmgren, Joyce Kim, and Eric Bannat.

Director of Photography, Jeremy Saulnier.

Editor, Marc Vives.

Sound Mix, Ben Goldberg.

Running time: 87 minutes.