A movie of careful entrances and exits, Matt Porterfield’s “I Used to Be Darker” chronicles the dissolution of a marriage through the eyes of a runaway cousin who drops in unannounced. This outsider presence, catching only fragmented snatches of the overcharged emotions engulfing the family, allows the film ample room to distance an otherwise tense situation. The fact that the couple are musicians (on and offscreen) further defuses the angst, sometimes sending it spinning into song. At once emotionally charged, formally abstract and narratively laidback, Porterfield’s third feature should sustain the indie cred enjoyed by his much-lauded earlier films.
Taryn (Deragh Campbell) is introduced working in a shop on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md. An unwanted pregnancy and a fight with a young man transpiring behind glass doors apparently trigger her decision to leave. But when Taryn arrives in Baltimore, her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) has already filed for divorce and moved out of the upscale family house for more bohemian digs, leaving behind her embittered husband, Bill (Ned Oldham), and resentful daughter, Abby (Hannah Gross).
While Kim has pursued her music career, touring with a small folk band, Bill’s need to support the family has curtailed his singing and songwriting, in the process destroying his strongest link to his wife — who, adding insult to injury, is sleeping with a younger member of her band.
When Kim returns to pick up books or instruments, the house becomes an armed camp, with Bill drinking steadily, mired in anger and self-pity, and Kim bristling with defensiveness against the onslaught of a husband and daughter who feel betrayed. This vortex of unresolved conflict spills over onto Taryn, herself struggling with issues related to parents and parenthood. Yet, for the most part, the family feels less dysfunctional than deconstructed, spinning off into fragments and partially reforming as individual members are drawn to or repelled by one another.
Though working with a smaller cast and a more unified, generic plotline than in “Hamilton” or “Putty Hill,” Porterfield nevertheless maintains a relaxed, nonjudgmental flow, full of moments of silent communion or reflection captured by lenser Jeremy Saulnier’s quietly striking compositions as parts of an unseen whole. The film’s title, taken from a lyric in a Bill Callahan song (“I used to be darker / but then I got lighter / and then I got darker again”), implies a timeline with no particular direction.
Unlike locked-in mainstream divorce tales, whether comically crazed (“War of the Roses”), sentimentally moral (“Kramer vs. Kramer”) or autobiographically self-indulgent (“The Story of Us”), “Darker” moves through an open-ended present. Thus, Taryn can join a bunch of Abby’s friends for an impromptu game of tag football, which suddenly relocates to a theater where aspiring actress Abby delivers Gertrude’s evocative recounting of Ophelia’s death.