Metal” is a rough-hewn but affecting slice of life that examines something too seldom visible in contemporary film — the African-American, urban working poor. This is no boys-in-the-hood, gang or crime meller, but a domestic drama about characters whose struggles are unsensationalized, largely invisible to society at large, yet Sisyphean nonetheless. Despite some uneven qualities, “Metal’s” basic integrity lends it considerable, distinctive power. But the film’s uncompromising nature and overall bleakness will also make it a difficult item to place theatrically. At very least, other fests should take note.
Dedicated in an end-title to John Cassavetes, pic does recall the late indie pioneer’s goal of unvarnished human-scale drama, though stylistically the tools are different — dialogue is often minimalist, improv does not play an obvious role, scenes are frequently brief and the acting is naturalistic in a more low-key vein. Nor does story build toward catharsis: In line with the oft-repeated comment “Some things just can’t be fixed,” the central figures’ lives here are in desperate need of a change for the better that just doesn’t arrive. Needless to say, this adds to “Metal’s” conviction, but it also makes the experience more depressing than some audiences will find pleasant, or even useful.
Ray (Wedrell James) recently lost his job as an auto mechanic. While no one doubts his skill, no further opportunities seem to be turning up. His mounting sense of failure is straining relations with his wife, Mary (Venieta Porter), who’s supportive but is growing exasperated all the same over her increased financial burden and his emotional distance. They’re barely conscious of taking those frustrations out on eldest child Chris (Khafre James), a sullen adolescent; he, in turn, lashes out at shy little sis Miranda (Alyce James).
Ray’s obsession with fixing his broken-down truck becomes a (slightly heavy-handed) metaphor for the sour, resentful helplessness the whole family is sinking into. When he goes against better judgment to seek out a (possibly stolen) replacement part for the auto with a friend, they’re dragged into an even more desperate household’s ugly domestic warfare. Ray’s luck just won’t turn; his faith in himself is draining. And while his family seems superficially stable amid their poor, drug- and gang-imperiled community, the resulting bitterness is starting to widen seams between them.
Sophomore writer-director Christopher E. Brown (“Miner”) effectively builds a complex psychological landscape through blackout-separated scenes that are often short, uneventful or dominated by tense silences. The result is potent and sympathetic, a series of carefully observed nuances only rarely disturbed by the odd bit of preachy dialogue or over-emphatic acting. For the patient viewer, “Metal” grows achingly sad — it’s made credibly clear, without commentary, that these lives are unlikely to improve in the current racial/economic power structure.
Generally admirable, focused perfs have their stilted moments; editing and sound recording are erratic at times. The choice of Bach cello pieces (played rather unsteadily by an occasionally onscreen musician) as sole musical backdrop comes off a tad pretentious. But its unpolished aspects don’t include “Metal’s” gritty yet lyrical B&W visual textures, nor do they seriously mar a strong overall impact.