Thrash metal plays on a cheap stereo while an antiquated air conditioning unit blows lethargically through ragged curtains: From the very first moment in “Sollers Point” we are back in director Matthew Porterfield’s recurring cinematic territory, amid the broken lawnmowers and bulk-discount cat food cans of a blue-collar Baltimore suburb. This time, however, even by the low-key indie standards set by his previous films, Porterfield turns the burner down to a flicker on his hometown drama. Without the half-lidded wisdom of the more impressionistic “Putty Hill,” or the pause-button observation of family dynamics in “I Used to Be Darker,” “Sollers Point” may grasp at an ostensibly clearer storyline — about the difficulty of readjusting to life after a criminal conviction — but it gains little momentum, and the result feels a little pallid, for all its lived-in, worn-through sense of place.
The focal point of this anti-drama is Keith, played by the strikingly good-looking McCaul Lombardi, who should certainly find a boost up the ladder here after small roles in “American Honey” and “Patti Cakes.” As the film begins, the rangy 26-year-old is serving a term of house arrest in the run-down bungalow belonging to his cat-loving father Carol (Jim Belushi, underused but impressive). We’re never told what his crime was, but after his anklet is removed and he’s free to roam about once more, occasional run-ins with a local gang that insists he owes them some sort of fealty, as well as a job as a low-level dealer for an old acquaintance, speak to his familiarity with pastimes of at least borderline legality. On the one hand it’s refreshing that not too much is made of the fact that Keith and the gang members, of whom the bellicose Aaron (Tom Guiry) is the most overtly antagonistic, are white, while his neighbors and friends, in particular aspiring rapper Marquis (Brieyon Bell-El) and ex-long-term girlfriend Courtney (Zazie Beetz) are black. But on the other, the vague White Power trappings of the gang also hint at yet another avenue of potential intrigue that Porterfield leaves unexplored.
Keith toys listlessly with the idea of becoming an air conditioning engineer. It’s a career path encouraged by his dad, but stymied by Keith’s lack of dynamism — a quality with which it’s hard for the viewer to engage. Wearing a T-shirt faded to the exact blue of his eyes, and driving under sunny skies through strip-club parking lots in a battered, borrowed pick-up truck, Keith presents a vivid image of marginalized, loose-limbed Americana, but it’s one that’s easier to look at than invest in.
It’s only when he comes into contact with others that the film sparks to life. There are encounters with an addict (Alyssa Bresnahan); flirtations with a slumming art student (Maya Martinez); the pseudo-philosophizing of a gang leader (Michael Rogers) about integrity and dignity; the tough-love sympathy of a sweet soup-dispensing grandmother (Lynn Cohen); and brief visits from a loving but distracted sister (Marin Ireland) who has her own family to worry about. But these meetings and conversations all feel like minor episodes, mere road markers on an autopilot journey whose far-off destination is either redemption or recidivism, and far more likely the latter.
It’s telling that in all this gradual unraveling (shot with casual, downbeat beauty by promising DP Shabier Kirchner) perhaps the film’s best scene is one that takes place without Lombardi present, between Belushi and Beetz. In it, Carol, whose love for his son cannot conceal his disappointment in him, pleads with Courtney not to press charges for Keith’s latest transgression, showing an emotive fervor he never demonstrates around Keith himself. It’s a beautifully observed exchange, made all the more poignant by that fact that at that moment his son is off exacting a petty revenge on him in a fit of misdirected pique. Scenes like these, and the volumes of shared history, hope and disillusionment that Beetz can convey with just her prickly body language, suggest that a more streamlined cast of supporting characters and a less diffuse approach might have raised the story’s heartbeat a little.
Instead, it’s frustrating and not a little distancing to watch this lethargic downward spiral as Keith defaults from one bad decision to the next, less out of any inherent badness than a kind of sullen, self-pitying inertia. Elucidating without necessarily illuminating, “Sollers Point” sings an honest song of self-defeat and squandered promise and finding yourself at the end of your youth with nothing to show but a rap sheet and a dog who really belongs to your ex. But its impact is muffled down to a murmur.