Matthew Gordon’s “The Dynamiter” badly needs the kind of explosion its title suggests, focusing instead on the slow-burning fuse that causes a motherless Mississippi teenager to sever ties with what remains of his family and seek his own destiny. A low-key cousin to films like “Ballast” and “Shotgun Stories,” pic captures the rhythm and texture of its environment but is too understated in the telling, owing largely to an ensemble of non-pro locals who look the part but lack the charisma to make us care. Domestic auds are typically ambivalent about such regional portraiture, though smaller fests should express interest.
When it comes to kin, Robbie Hendrick (William Patrick Ruffin) drew the short straw, but he’s determined to make the most of what life gave him. At 14, he’s the man of the house, taking care of his 8-year-old half-brother, Fess (John Alex Nunnery), and barely-there grandma (Joyce Baldwin), now that his mom has abandoned them to chase her dreams in California. Gordon first shows the boys playing games of medieval make-believe in a nearby hayfield, a reminder that they are just kids after all, despite the burden society puts on Robbie to act more grown-up than he is.
On the last day of school, he’s caught stealing from another student’s locker. Rather than watch Robbie go down the same path as his deadbeat brother Lucas (Patrick Rutherford), the counselor assigns him a personal essay to be written over the summer, which gives the film an excuse to introduce snippets of indolent narration throughout — yet another nod to Terrence Malick in a film that aspires to being a sort of “Badlands” on the riverbank.
Robbie spends much of his essay musing on the meaning of family, and though he’s no Shakespeare, there’s a poignancy to his semiliterate ramblings. The viewer must sometimes strain to make out what he’s saying, learning more from his body language than his actual words: Robbie goes around shirtless most of the time, as if in some sort of Bruce Weber fantasy. He and Lucas could almost be called handsome, if their faces didn’t look like balled-up fists of anger.
Surrounded by temptation and bad examples, with no friends and fewer role models, Robbie is clearly a powder keg primed to explode, and the central question of Brad Ingelsby’s script becomes how he’ll lash out when he snaps. But first-time actor Ruffin’s fundamental goodness shows through, defusing a fair amount of that anger. To borrow one of Lucas’ expressions, he can be 500,000 pounds when he has to, which comes in handy when fights do arise. More often than not, however, we see him being sensitive, bonding with Fess or appreciating the humid, mosquito-thick wilderness that surrounds them.
Both Gordon and Ingelsby hail from the East Coast, but manage to resist the patronizing airs that often infect outsider-told Southern stories. Locals might write off the Hendricks as poor white trash, but the film passes no such judgment; nor does it strain to romanticize their lot. If only “The Dynamiter” weren’t so dramatically slack; it’s no more clear on what it ultimately wants to do or be than its main character is.
Behind the camera, d.p. Jeffrey Waldron finds the natural allure that the seldom-seen-onscreen Greenville and Glen Allan locations have to offer, while a five-person editing team includes just the right balance of beauty shots, slipping in footage of dragonflies, sunsets and the like (though a steadier hand would have made Brian Burgoyne’s shooting more watchable). Casey Immoor’s score, supplemented by songs from Animal Collective, goes a long way to professionalize a project that masks its low-budget limitations fairly well.