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Jefferson Root Written by Jefferson Root
Apr. 8, 2011 | 11:12 AM

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Thanks to the work of established local filmmakers like Barry Levinson, John Waters, and David Simon (The Wire), the city of Baltimore has already had a rich cinematic life.  For those who have spent time there, it’s easy to see why.  Few American cities change more drastically from block to block.  The Jewish Middle class neighborhoods chronicled in Levinson’s early work are a world away from the gleeful trashiness Waters put on screen in Pink Flamingos.  Likewise, Orioles fans going to watch a game at Camden Yards don’t expect to end up in the middle of a scene from The Wire.  Director Matt Porterfield presents yet another side of Charm City with his second feature Putty Hill, which introduces us to a working class community on Baltimore’s fringes, who have to come to grips with the premature loss of one of their own.

Putty Hill takes its time revealing itself, but from the beginning the film exerts a hypnotic pull.  Following a series of establishing shots, the action shifts to the kinetic spectacle of a paintball match in full swing.  This sequence represents the first of several in the film where Porterfield and his cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier display an uncommonly keen cinematic eye.  Whether it’s paintball, accelerating tail lights, or BMX bikes cascading through the air at a skate park, Porterfield and Saulnier hook the viewer with a series of extraordinary images of their characters’ every day lives.  As the paintball game concludes, and we meet one of the participants, we learn that his brother, Cory, died of a drug overdose the week before. Few in the community seem to know Cory all that well, his family included, but there seems to be no question that everyone will be attending his funeral.  Part of Putty Hill‘s fascination lies in the ways his friends and family attempt to discover who he was.

Working with a group of actors he had assembled for a previous project that fell though, Porterfield draws out impressive, naturalistic performances across the board.  Porterfield and his producer claim a co-story credit on the film, but the dialogue in most of the scenes was largely improvised.  Improvisiation is de rigeur in the indie film world these days, but the results can be mixed.  Porterfield clearly benefits here from working with a group who know each other well, and the actors all acquit themselves nicely.  Special credit is due to Sky Ferreira, who delivers a wrenching performance as Jenny, who not only most process her feelings about Cory’s death, but also must confront the estranged father whom she hasn’t seen in years.

Coming in at a scant 85 minutes, Putty Hill is nonetheless a film of significant weight.  What saves it from collapsing is the sense of community engendered by the film’s characters.  These are flawed people, some of whom are heavily damaged.  But the film still delivers a sense that in their own unique way, they have each other, and that they will continue to carry on as best they can.  Exhibiting a rare combination of cinema verite and lush lyricism, Putty Hill is a mesmerizing film experience.

Putty Hill opens Friday, April 8th, at the Laemmle Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.  Director Matt Porterfield will be present for audience Q & A after the 7:30 screenings on the 8th and 9th.

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