An ex-convict seeking a shot at redemption is hard-pressed to find it in “Beneath Contempt,” a muted and morose pic likely to elicit begrudging respect more than genuine enthusiasm from festivalgoers and adventurous homevid and VOD viewers. Multihyphenate Benjamin Brewer gets impressive performances from a little-known cast, and skillfully sustains tension during silent sequences and extended exchanges of dialogue. But after 90 minutes or so of deliberately paced and portentous buildup, the film fails to provide a dramatically or emotionally satisfying payoff.
Pic begins promisingly with a pre-credits sequence that transcends obvious budgetary limitations — and neatly upends expectations — while dramatizing events leading to a fatal auto mishap.
Flash forward four years, and Sean Beckett (Colin Janson), a burly twentysomething whose drunken driving caused the deaths of three passengers, is released from prison and ready to return to his small Massachusetts hometown. Except for his mother (Melanie May) and uncle (Eric Eastman), however, no one in the community is eager to have him back in their midst.
Juna Barnes (Sarah Newhouse), mother of one of the accident victims, has been more or less immobilized by grief since her son’s death. But news of Sean’s return rouses her from her melancholy, and leads her to seek some way of having him expelled from town. Matthew (Mike Bash), Juna’s attentive but overworked son, appears less concerned about Sean’s unwelcome presence than he is about the free-floating anxieties of his younger sister (Abby Austin).
But appearances can be deceiving.
Working from his own screenplay, director-editor Brewer proceeds slowly, sporadically pausing to linger on lenser Shant Ergenian’s artfully composed images, which register between revealing and totally irrelevant.
Pic cuts back and forth between Sean’s glum but determined efforts to start a new life while keeping his head down, and the day-to-day dynamics of a family haunted by a tragic death. The storytelling is elliptical, and avoids predictability. (Brewer spares aud the cliche of a supportive girlfriend for the moody ex-con.) Raw emotions are credibly and often compellingly expressed.
Long before the midway mark, however, the overall solemnity of “Beneath Contempt” begins to feel self-conscious. And while one can admire Janson’s restraint while playing Sean as a wary, mumbling introvert, it’s difficult to discern just what’s going on inside his character’s head during scenes that might have benefited from a smidge less ambiguity.
Still, Janson inhabits his role with an apt mix of sorrow and skittishness, while other members of the strong ensemble cast — especially standouts Bash and Newhouse — hit all the right notes even as Brewer keeps the volume tamped down.