Molding from the familiar clay of a broken family and a father’s conflicted relationship with his sons, Brian Jun has crafted a sensitively observed and unexpectedly hopeful drama about atonement in “Steel City.” Its honest, unshowy performances and textured depiction of life in a working-class community in a nowhere Southern Illinois town make this modest indie feature an affecting experience. Those qualities, in addition to hinting at a strong career to come for the debuting writer-director, could help elevate the film from its natural cable domain into a small theatrical niche.
Emotional intensity gives way to calm reflection as badly shaken teenager PJ (Thomas Guiry) is interviewed by police following the arrest of his father Carl (John Heard) for the latter’s role in the accidental death of a woman. Vivid, saturated-color flashbacks to PJ’s childhood show that Carl was a gruff, unfeeling father and husband.
Jun, who also handled editing chores, cuts together a fluid series of short, fragmented scenes that slowly coalesce into a lucid picture of Carl’s splintered family. PJ’s cocky older brother Ben (Clayne Crawford) is an unfaithful husband, unable to be much better as a parent than the father he refuses to acknowledge. The boys’ mother Marianne (Laurie Metcalf) has remarried; her cop husband Randall (James McDaniel) appears willing to take PJ under his wing when he shows an interest in joining the police academy.
Scared and angry, PJ provides the absorbing drama with an unwavering center in Guiry’s bruised performance. Undisciplined and adrift, he gets fired from his restaurant job and evicted from the family house, acknowledging his feelings for co-worker girlfriend Amy (America Ferrera) while at the same time finding reasons to keep shutting her out. He moves in with his Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry), an ex-Marine whose exacting standards prove too confronting for PJ.
During visits with his father in jail awaiting trial, PJ reveals the painful secret that’s destabilized him, a disclosure that also shines new light on the lengths to which Carl is prepared to go to make amends to his family.
While it’s better in inexplicit observational mode than when characters like Randall and Vic take on an educative role, Jun’s writing has an emotional integrity and natural flow that gets under the skin of his characters. He shows deep insight into the ways in which love can be soured by people’s disappointment in each other, while at the same time allowing optimism for their capacity to forgive and heal.
Jun’s work with the actors is strong. In perceptive, unembellished performances, Guiry, Heard, Metcalf, Crawford and Ferrera all communicate far deeper reserves of feeling than their guarded dialogue would indicate.
The low-budget, digitally shot production shows a keen sense of place, evident in Ryan Samul’s gritty, melancholy visuals. Composer Mark Geary’s flavorful acoustic guitar score and liberal use of songs written and performed by Jeff Black help etch the drama’s poignant mood of pain and redemption.