Familial bonds are not easily broken. Bent, stretched, ripped, damaged and warped all out of shape? Definitely. But irreparably broken? Rarely.
Baltimore director Matt Porterfield's "I Used To Be Darker" looks carefully at what it means to be a family, at the responsibilities those bonds entail and the costs they exact. With great tenderness and relentless honesty, it watches as parents and children struggle over just how strong the ties that bind them together are. The result is a film consistently perceptive and occasionally revelatory, one that holds up a mirror to who we are, posing questions and suggesting answers, but trusting enough in its audiences' intelligence to let them draw their own conclusions.
"I Used To Be Darker" opens in Ocean City, where red-headed Taryn (a sympathetically vulnerable Deragh Campbell) is struggling with an anger she can't express, much less resolve. Stuck in a stultifying summer job in a Boardwalk retail store, she's clearly reached the end of some sort of rope. The results of a pregnancy test she's just taken don't help. Clearly, escape is the only viable option.
So she ends up in Baltimore, dropping in practically unannounced on her aunt and uncle, Kim (Kim Taylor) and Bill (Ned Oldham), and their daughter, Abby (Hannah Gross), who is roughly Taryn's age. She's hoping for some sort of shelter, some comfort in her time of turmoil, but her relatives are staring down their own demons. Kim and Bill are separating and headed for divorce, while Abby isn't sure whose side she's on, and doesn't much like being forced to choose.
Porterfield and Amy Belk, who collaborated on the script, carefully avoid the handy clichés of children-of-divorce films, and resist the urge to pitch emotions too high. There's a river of resentment flowing through "I Used To Be Darker," fed by a recurring current of helplessness. These are all good people; there are no villains (who's at fault is never made clear, or even much dwelt on). There are, however, plenty of hurt feelingsand conflicting emotions. Civility is maintained, though sometimes just barely.
As a director, Porterfield delights in standing back from his characters, allowing his camera to hover but not intrude. That distance suggests a sense of helplessness; you want to confront these characters, maybe hug them, maybe try to set them straight. But you can't. Though at times frustrating, especially for American audiences used to films that wear their hearts on their sleeves, the technique gives Porterfield's work an emotional honesty that may be its greatest strength.
The film, which raised funds via a Kickstarter campaign, also makes tremendous use of music as a way to underscore the emotions of the characters on screen and to enhance our reaction to them. Both Kim and Bill are musicians; they once played in a band together, what seems a lifetime ago. But they remain far better at expressing their emotions through song than by talking. Both the actors who portray them, Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham, are musicians singing their own compositions. It's hard to believe the songs weren't written especially for the movie, so perfectly do they reflect the mood. Taylor's film-closing solo may be the single most affecting scene in the entire film.
"I Used To Be Darker" is Porterfield's third feature; like the previous two — "Hamilton" and "Putty Hill" — it is set in his native Baltimore. While it may be his most accessible work, with a stronger and more traditional narrative structure than his other two efforts, it's hardly a radical departure. His work remains lyrical, firmly rooted in the city he still calls home, but touching on universal themes of identity and human interaction and growing up in a world that obstinately refuses to provide a road map.
One could argue that not much happens in "I Used To Be Darker," and one would be right. Events don't snowball, voices aren't raised (at least not as often as you might expect), breakthroughs aren't realized. There is no climactic scene, or clarifying speech, or emotional turning point. But there is honesty, and heart, and a desire to shed light, to understand. Much to its credit, this is a film that prods, but never pushes.
It is a wonderful, assured, insightful work.
'I Used To Be Darker' - 3 1/2 stars
Running time: 1 hour, 30 min.