Named for a Baltimore working-class district, “Putty Hill,” Matt Porterfield’s shoestring-budget sophomore effort (after the little-seen if much-lauded “Hamilton”) gathers real people in real places — houses, skate parks, swimming pools, karaoke sessions — around a fictional premise. This curious blend of documentary and narrative, held together less by any plot device than by a rigorous aesthetic, proves all the more effective for being in service of casual naturalism. Given the current stasis of indie production, the door to distribution may suddenly open for an artistically focused filmmaker who, like Kelly Reichardt, is no Hollywood wannabe.
Pic began as a fully developed script by Porterfield and producer Jordan Mintzer titled “Metal Gods.” When funding fell through, the filmmakers repurposed the crew and local nonprofessional actors they had already assembled for a less structured, off-the-cuff venture. Porterfield imagined the death by overdose of a young man, Cory, as a unifying thread, loosely tying together his disparate actors. (This dead-guy hook, reminiscent of John Sayles’ “Secaucus 7” or Lawrence Kasdan’s “The Big Chill,” here functions less as pivotal plot point than as plain pretext, and sometimes simply as conversation-starter.)
Pic employs various strategies to engage its actors with the audience. Some characters are interviewed by Porterfield’s offscreen voice about their relationship to Cory and their lives in general, while shown sitting in a moving taxi, lounging in a plastic pool or matter-of-factly etching tattoos on clients’ forearms. Other characters desultorily chat at Cory’s wake, where a karaoke machine amplifies funeral orations and supplies backup to”I Will Always Love You.” Two girls philosophize, stretched out on a pallet in the barren room of a deserted house where the dead kid once squatted.
Unfolding in long takes in informal-seeming but skillfully composed tableaux, these extended moments, developing organically in real time, impart a certain serenity and integrity to the figures grouped within the frame, who never come off as “other” in their working-class bluntness. Camera movement — or lack of it — is used for effect. Lenser Jeremy Saulnier uses tracking shots for most character interactions; the stillness of the camera when it fails to follow a character’s dramatic exit can perversely signal the other figure’s refusal to respond.
Thesping is remarkable, particularly by putative star Sky Ferreira, whose wonderfully inflected gestures and tangled long locks weave stories of their own. Porterfield, a native of Baltimore who doesn’t look much older than his cast, has managed to elicit engrossing performances that feel unforced and spontaneous.
With independent cinema becoming less reliable as a source of quirky, feel-good small films, will it leave room for raw, youth-oriented and carefully crafted minimalist mise-en-scene exercises like “Putty Hill”?
The film’s producer, Jordan Mintzer, is a Paris-based critic for Variety. Ronnie Scheib is an impartial critic for Variety based in New York.