Keith is a convicted low-level drug dealer, recently sprung from home detention and anxious to get his life back on track. He's surrounded by "friends," some anxious to help, others just as anxious to get him back in the business. His ex-girlfriend wants no part of him, and won't even give him his dog back. His emotionally distant father isn't sure what to do, but is trying. Even his own instincts, including a trigger temper, often betray him.
Filmmaker and native Baltimorean Matthew Porterfield knows Keith and the other characters in "Sollers Point" well. They're composites of people he knew growing up in northeast Baltimore, including himself. They're also a big reason local audiences should find plenty relatable in Porterfield's fourth made-in-Baltimore feature — and why audiences everywhere can appreciate the honesty and empathy he injects into his films.
"The themes in this film have touched my life, or the lives of my family, the people in my neighborhood," says Porterfield, 40, taking a break from his full-time job teaching film at Johns Hopkins University to discuss his latest movie, which is getting its local premiere at this week's 20th Maryland Film Festival. "It's definitely people I've known, friends I've had, and myself.
"Globalization, the decline of blue-collar jobs, drugs," Porterfield says, rattling off some of the urban dilemmas that are continually bubbling to the surface of his film. "I can't think of anybody in my life, in this city, whose life hasn't been touched by drugs."
All of which makes "Sollers Point" sound like a pretty serious downer. But like all of of Porterfield's movies — from 2006's "Hamilton" to 2010's "Putty Hill" and 2013's "I Used to be Darker" — there's a stubborn sub-thread of hope. Keith can be frustrating at times, and he gets smacked down plenty. But he gets up, his heart remaining stubbornly in the right place. It's hard not to root for the guy.
"These dudes are just like you and I, except that one wrong situation messed up their whole timeline," says actor McCaul Lombardi, whose portrayal of Keith should land him on plenty of casting directors' must-have lists. "When I read Keith, I saw a lot of my friends. I could have been Keith, easily, if I hadn't made some life moves."
Porterfield and Lombardi, who's in just about every scene of the film, spent much of the late summer of 2016 shooting "Sollers Point." They filmed in its namesake Baltimore County neighborhood, surrounded on three sides by the Patapsco and Back rivers, as well as in Turner Station, Hamilton (where Porterfield grew up), Dundalk and Fort Howard.
"Baltimore's a big character, again," says Porterfield with a smile. Indeed, references to his and Lombardi's hometown (the latter grew up in Perry Hall) pepper the film. Anyone who's driven the area streets will doubtless see locations that look familiar. They even shot a scene at Hamilton's Holiday House bar, a favorite of area bikers that found its way into John Waters' 2004 "A Dirty Shame."
But even those who have never been north of Northern Parkway will smile at references to Bethlehem Steel (a recurring theme in the movie is the loss of a blue-collar way of life that centered on a company that for decades was by far the area's biggest employer), as well as Sinclair Avenue, the Aberdeen Ironbirds, the Community College of Baltimore County, Baltimore Cemetery and plenty of other local shout-outs.
The movie, both men agree, should help to humanize people's perceptions of Baltimore, moving beyond the violent and downtrodden images that often show up in the national media. Like Keith, perhaps, the city is coping.
"Even though it's not a film about Baltimore," says Lombardi, "you can kind of take a look into our window, look at it as if it's kind of a [snow] globe and see what gets shaken up, see how stuff falls."
But beyond that — and this is key to Porterfield's success, what has made him a critical, if not yet a box-office, darling — is the universality of his ideas, the understanding he shows of his characters and his steadfast refusal to wrap them up in neat little packages. Keith changes very little in the course of "Sollers Point," and story threads are left dangling everywhere.
Which is a lot more realistic, Porterfield says, than watching how a life-changing event transforms everything in its wake, or demanding that your central character see the light at some point.
"The movie reflects the experiences of so many young men like him, who are living with great uncertainty," he says. "I think the themes are universal, so much so that I'm finding it resonates with audiences in Latin America and Europe just as much as with American audiences."
Lombardi, reed thin and with piercing blue eyes, creates a Keith who is compellingly flawed, one moment getting misty-eyed watching a video of his niece's birthday party, the next taking a baseball bat to a van that accidentally runs into his cart at a neighborhood supermarket.
"I'm expecting big things from him," Porterfield says, praising the depth Lombardi brought to the character.*
Lombardi, 26, whose credits include the films "American Honey" and "Patti Cake$," has equal praise for his director.
"Me and Matt became brothers throughout the process," Lombardi says. "It was very easy to get our points across and be open and honest with each other. Halfway through, it started being like I was just working with a family member, like this is our baby that we were working on together… He was very open to letting the artists be artists."
And that isn't the only thing Porterfield has been open about with his films. Audiences, he says, can learn a lot about him by watching what's on the screen. And he's comfortable with that.
"I feel like, with each film, I like to turn inward a little more," he says. "I think my cinema's observational in certain ways, hopefully naturalistic. But I also like getting into my own unconscious, exploring that through the creative process of writing."
For his next project, however, it looks like Porterfield will be taking that exploration outside of Baltimore for the first time. He's got a script, co-written with "two expat Americans based in France, raising children there," about a 40-year-old rapper on a concert tour of Europe with his preteen son.
"It's about a guy approaching middle age dealing with the decline of his career and getting to know his 12-year-old son for the first time," he says.
"It will be set entirely in Europe," he adds, noting that exactly where depends, in part, on what European sources he's able to tap into for financing. "The tour takes him through France and Belgium, but we could also go to the Netherlands or Germany, it doesn't matter that much — it's a European tour."
Porterfield says he's also ready to try his hand at directing someone else's script, not restricting himself to projects he's nurtured from the beginning.
"Directing is a muscle that you have to exercise," he says. "If I'm only directing every two or three years, I'm not exercising as much as I should."
Nor, perhaps, giving audiences as much as they deserve.
*An earlier version of this sentence contained incorrect information about actor McCaul Lombardi's background.
If you go
If you go: The 20th Maryland Film festival runs May 2-6 at the Niarchos Foundation Parkway, 5 W. North Ave., and other nearby venues. Screenings of "Sollers Point" are set for 7 p.m. May 3 at the Parkway and 4:30 p.m. May 6 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Brown Center, 1301 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $13. "Sollers Point" opens for an extended run at the Parkway on May 11. mdfilmfest.com.