I Used to Be Darker opens on a stretch of Ocean City beach, a pier and a ferris wheel looming in the distance, nearly all of the sand enveloped in the shadow created by a passing cloud. The faint chatter of surfers and sunbathers retreating for the day sounds down the coast. In a dime-store stockroom somewhere, we see a fair-skinned girl silently inventorying clackers and shell bracelets and the like.
It's abundantly evident that Matt Porterfield loves sticky Maryland summers. His movies seem intrinsically linked to summertime in Baltimore: Hamilton unfolds over an August weekend amidst lawn mowing and bike riding in the Northeast Baltimore neighborhood, and one of Putty Hill's most memorable sequences lingers on teens splashing in a stream in Double Rock Park. In his minimalistic soundtracks, we hear the constant whir of cicadas and crickets that scores our summers. His static long takes, whether of a skatepark or a pool or a front step, evoke the almost-palpable languor that greets you when you open a car door.
Though it starts in Ocean City, I Used to Be Darker soon migrates. Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a waifish Northern Irish 19-year-old, finds herself in a predicament and unceremoniously quits the beach for Baltimore, where she drops in on Bill (Ned Oldham) and Kim (Kim Taylor), her uncle and aunt. Her timing is particularly bad, because Bill and Kim are in the midst of separating; Taryn leaves a message announcing her arrival-and the fact that she's got no other place to stay-as Kim packs up her things, Bill looking on at the process with restrained bitterness. Their college-age daughter, Abby, is slated to return from New York the next day, and the unexpected houseguest in the newly divided home further complicates a tense situation.
It's Bill who picks up Taryn from the bus stop, although Kim's sister is Taryn's mother. He breaks the news about the separation to her, he sets her up in what is now his house. When Abby comes home, the two girls spend most of their time there, swimming in the pool, hanging out with Bill at night. When the girls visit Kim, a singer/songwriter who's moved in with her bandmates, Abby barely says a word to her.
Porterfield quietly captures the family dynamics without prodding them or exposing the raw feelings beneath the skin. The closeness of his camera to its subjects often dictates the intimacy of a scene. The majority of shots are full, making it seem as if the camera, like an observer, gives the characters space as they cope with the adjusting circumstances. Undercurrents of resentment and anxiety lurk in interactions-sometimes bubbling up and taking over-but they're often layered under simple, familiar actions: Taryn padding around the house, exploring it for the first time; Bill, Abby, and Taryn finishing off a bottle of red while reminiscing over dinner; Abby perching on the basement steps, wordlessly watching her dad play music with a friend. (There are a handful of long takes devoted to entire songs, mostly performed by Taylor or Oldham, real-life musicians.)
These everyday moments, the ordinariness of Darker's premise, the unassuming realness, aided by Porterfield's use of non-actors, give the film its weight. Like Hamilton and Putty Hill, the exposition and narrative arc here are sparse and loose. Of his feature films, Darker would seem the most accessible, the most plotted of the three. It bears more resemblance to Hamilton than the documentary-esque Putty Hill, whose compilation of footage formed an impressionistic styling of the neighborhood.
Darker is more removed from Baltimore, though a few of the filming locations are identifiable. The girls see a show in the Copycat Building. Kim and her band perform at the now-defunct Sonar. A nighttime scene, one suspects, takes place in the rusted tram car on Clipper Mill Road.
While the film stays close to Taryn, Bill, Kim, and Abby, it's not truly a character study. Their relationships and pasts are lightly shaded in, but the tenuousness of the scenario-Taryn staying in Bill's house, her quandary unresolved; the unspoken anger between Bill and Kim; Abby's avoidance of her mother-dominates Darker. One waits for things to come to a head, of their own accord, taking in what occurs in the meantime. Waiting for that moment (which eventually comes) is like sitting outside on a summer day, feeling the breeze and watching the sun go down.