In freshman helmer Jaffe Zinn’s “Magic Valley,” a teenage girl’s dead body lies in a field, its discovery soon to impact several inhabitants of the small town of Buhl, Idaho. Transpiring over a single day, this elegiac indie plays less like a whodunit than a gradual locking together of puzzle pieces, isolating the separate contexts of those affected: two small boys, a fish farmer, a troubled adolescent, a housewife, a sheriff and his deputy. Rooted in a specific locale and filmed with striking visual assurance, the pic could repeat the success of producer Heather Rae’s similarly location-anchored “Frozen River.”
Hundreds of dead golden trout float belly-up in a pond, presaging disaster for Jerry (Brad William Henke), whose hardnosed new neighbor has diverted the stream, leaving Jerry’s fish to suffocate. A different kind of suffocation preoccupies a group of high-school girls experimenting with the thrill of near-strangulation as they hyperventilate, line up to have the final coup de grace administered by a boy, and experience momentary unconsciousness.
Two little blond lads (Daniel Frandson, Landon Abercrombie) find the corpse of neighbor Susan, decide she is in fact deceased and set out to bury her — no small task in the hard earth.
Jerry’s wife, Martha (Alison Elliot), preoccupied with transporting her dog to the vet, is late in discovering that her daughter is missing and that no one has seen her since the previous night.
A teenage boy (Kyle Gallner), in the grip of some terrible emotion, wanders around his house and skateboards through town, unable to find peace. The local deputy (Will Estes), buttonholed by the old sheriff (Scott Glenn), is forced to drive his patrol car on daily rounds while listening to his superior recount his favorite episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger” in excruciating detail.
Zinn and gifted lenser Sean Kirby (“Zoo,” “The Tillman Story”) infuse each widescreen vignette with a palpable sense of portent, as if each bore the oddly intense coloration of memory. Yet the sense of impending dread never overshadows the casual surrealism of a 4-year-old pondering the logistics of body disposal or the priceless absurdity of the sheriff, while issuing a speeding ticket, suddenly drawing his revolver and exultantly shooting a pheasant (Glenn should play stupid more often). The fact that the body being buried is that of the sheriff’s only grandchild remains suspended in a timeframe accessible only to the viewer.
“Valley” puts its unique stamp on a ubiquitous dead-child theme broached in Tim Hunter’s “River’s Edge,” inimitably poeticized in Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” and unimaginatively reprised in countless films since.