I used to be darker / Then I got lighter / Then I got dark again — “Jim Cain” (Bill Callahan)
SPENCER: After collaborating on his masterful 2010 film Putty Hill, writer/director Matt Porterfield re-teamed with cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (who is currently enjoying critical praise for his second directorial effort Blue Ruin) for the Baltimore-based filmmaker’s latest—marvelous—movie I Used To Be Darker. While Porterfield’s aesthetic gambit with Putty Hill—utilizing documentary techniques to convey a fictional narrative—resulted in a remarkable hybrid form of experiential cinema, I Used To Be Darker arguably ups the ante by pairing a similarly observational naturalism (sans interviews) with more traditionally-plotted melodrama. The story follows Taryn, a young girl who, after running away to America from her parents in Ireland, responds to a sudden personal crisis by arriving at her cousin Abby’s home—where her aunt Kim and uncle Bill are in the midst of a contentious separation. Bill and Kim are both musicians, and the songs they perform in the film serve as alternative forms of expression for the emotions and ideas that Porterfield explores within the sometimes tension-filled dynamic of this family. Contributing to the naturalist style along with those musical performances is Saulnier’s cinematography, which strikingly balances its affected beauty (such as in the lush color palette) with a grounding in “realist”-minded touches (such as in the color palette’s mostly muted tones). These visual properties combine with other elements like the evocative sound design and carefully detailed locations to generate what is perhaps the film’s most exceptional quality: a true sense of being somewhere—with actual people in actual places, whether they be as loudly wide-open as a rock band’s studio loft show or as comfortably intimate as a suburban basement-turned-practice-space.
SAM: Porterfield, in Putty Hill and now I Used To Be Darker, has not only shown an exceptional eye for capturing the process of dealing with real-world trauma, but also how its effects steadily reverberate through relationships. While Putty Hill expounded the aftermath of a death by focusing on a community coming together through mourning, I Used To Be Darker works with a decidedly smaller aim—which is, of course, a family rapidly disintegrating in the wake of a divorce. Certainly more narrative-driven than his sophomore effort, it’s still a loose affair, defined less by pivotal plot moments and more by characters trying to make sense of the world and people around them. Like you mentioned, Spencer, the director’s naturalism is crucial to the film, rendering potentially trite material as a story told with uncommon intimacy. This is especially true with Porterfield’s decision to hone in on the friendship that develops between Taryn and Abby (two great performances from Hannah Gross and Deragh Campbell). Pointedly shifting to characters outside of Bill and Kim’s private world brings a dynamism to the separation drama, often resulting in small moments of genuine poignancy.
I Used To Be Darker is now playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.