The only thing I knew about Putty Hill as I headed in to the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago was that Roger Ebert had recommended it on Twitter with a four-star rating.
I tend to know a good deal about a film before I see it (I wish this were not so) and so it was a rare delight to go in to this screening knowing absolutely nothing about this one. This stirring and honest work nails what it is like to experience the aftermath of a life just ended. Yet this film is about much more than loss and grief. It’s an attempt to bring together something that might be fractured beyond repair.
There is dizzying deflation that comes along with death. Director Matt Porterfield (who contributed the story) weaves together many threads using startlingly fresh technique that by the end of the film left me impressed with his confidence, smarts, and sensitivity.
From the lack of a screenplay credit, I assumed that the performances were improvised. (I verified this later by reading interviews with the director.) The revelation that the cast is made up largely of untrained actors surprised me; they are that good. Sky Ferreira (Jenny) is the lone professional, and she is known more as a singer-songwriter than an actor. She joins a talented ensemble of unknowns who create some of the best work by an ensemble you’ll see this year in film. Not only did I believe what I saw on-screen, I also shared in the survivors’ experiences and feelings as they react to Cody’s death.
There’s no point putting a varnish on this next statement. So much of what we are given as consumers of modern cinema is bullshit. It’s bullshit we don’t believe, and it’s bullshit that we can smell before we enter the theater or switch it on at home. I ask you a simple question. Don’t we deserve better?
Putty Hill answers that question as it brings us into a loosely connected family and network of friends in a small community in lower class Baltimore. They have lost Cody (a young man we never meet) to a drug overdose. An off-screen presence, voiced by Porterfield, interviews in documentary style those Cody left behind. These characters reveal more about themselves than they do about Cody; he remains a vague shadow throughout the film.
That’s all I really want to say about plot and structure. From the opening shot that serves as the backdrop for the main titles, a shot that shows us the dying light of a day in an empty room, Jeremy Saulnier’s stirring photography lifts this film from the ranks of typical low budget indie features.
This is a small film that you might have to go out and find. Please, go find it.
It takes more than one person to make a movie. Visit http://puttyhillmovie.com/ for the names of the cast and crew who made one of this year’s best films.