'I Used to Be Darker'

A scene from "I Used to Be Darker." (Josh Sisk / August 3, 2011)

Baltimore auteur Matt Porterfield, a distinctive talent among American indie filmmakers, shifts gears in his third feature, "I Used to Be Darker." Forgoing the documentary elements but not the aesthetic rigor that made his previous film, "Putty Hill," an exquisite meld of genres, he adopts a somewhat more conventional fictional approach.

The low-key movie revolves around a family in the midst of a sea change: the end of a marriage and the disparate coming-of-age trajectories of two cousins. It's a story of contained chaos, quietly observed — one that catches fire more in retrospect than in the viewing.

Deragh Campbell, a first-timer in a cast of first-timers, brings a coltish grace to the role of a runaway 19-year-old from Northern Ireland who's adrift in Maryland. Seeking stability, she arrives on the doorstep of her aunt and uncle, only to find that they're splitting up. Their daughter (Hannah Gross), on a break from college, alternates self-confident charm and rage against the home-front disruptions.

The separating couple, played by musicians Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham, modulate their rancor, but it seeps into nearly every exchange. She's a singer-songwriter who's still deeply involved in music, while he has long since traded in the bohemian life for the role of breadwinner — and not, apparently, without bitterness.

As the shell-shocked characters try to find their footing, the film unfolds as a series of realistically inconclusive conversations, punctuated by pitch-perfect diegetic music. The tenderness builds, heightened by the precision of cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's compositions and the muted, end-of-summer palette.

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'I Used to Be Darker'

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes.

Playing: At Sundance Sunset Cinema, West Hollywood.