Film Review: ‘South Mountain’

A wife and mother navigates a personal crisis caused by her husband in Hilary Brougher’s incisive portrait of middle-aged upheaval.

Hilary Brougher
Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Macaulee Cassady, Violet Rea, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Guthrie Mass, Isis Masoud.

Running time: 85 MIN.

“South Mountain” joins the company of “Gloria Bell” and “Diane” as yet another 2019 drama intimately attuned to the literal and emotional plight of a middle-aged woman. In the case of Hilary Brougher’s incisive feature, the female in question is Lila (Talia Balsam), whose quiet life in upstate New York is destabilized by a continuing series of abandonments. A snapshot of major and minor upheavals, and the rocky means by which people move forward from them, it’s a showcase for Balsam’s superb lead turn, and — following its premiere at SXSW earlier this year, and spotlight selection screening at BAMcinemaFEst — an accomplished if minor indie facing a tough marketplace.

At an afternoon cookout with breast-cancer-stricken friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols) and her kids Charlotte (Violet Rea) and Jake (Guthrie Mass), Lila appears subtly troubled when screenwriter husband Edgar (Scott Cohen) chooses to take a work call in private. Her fears are well-founded, as Edgar is instead video chatting with mistress Gemma (Isis Masoud), who’s on the precipice of giving birth to their son in a bedroom. The ensuing, up-close-and-personal smartphone footage of that conception is real, and sets the tone for the ensuing atmosphere crafted by Brougher, whose images of fruit being cut on carving tables, food sitting on plates in muggy, insect-populated rooms, sugar cubes being stirred in tea cups, and trees rusting in the wind at twilight convey a tactile sense of this earthy milieu.

Edgar’s betrayal isn’t his first — a revelation that, like most of the details in Brougher’s discreet script (which leaps ahead at intervals denoted by onscreen dates), is learned through conversational bits and pieces. No matter Edgar’s adulterous pattern of behavior, the news hits Lila hard, especially since she wants to shield daughters Dara (Naian Gonzalez Norvind) and Sam (Macaulee Cassady) — the latter from Edgar’s first marriage — from pain. Her ensuing efforts to cope with Edgar’s unfaithfulness form the backbone of the film’s action. An argument with Gigi provides Lila with an excuse to vent, but by and large, she confronts her newfound situation softly, be it finding temporary comfort in the arms of Sam’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer), or face-to-face with Edgar, with whom she strives to maintain a relationship — thanks to her prior ability to forgive his trespasses — despite her fury, which manifests itself in a drastic, if hastily reconsidered, stab at revenge.

Popular on Variety

Those two incidents would, in a more clichéd story, thrust Lila into overtly melodramatic terrain. Yet “Small Mountain” maintains restraint, born from an understanding of Lila’s conflicted feelings about Edgar, her kids (whom she wants to protect, and who fear she may turn suicidal again), and the fact that everyone in her life keeps leaving her. When Lila dismisses Jonah’s advice to “run away” as an option available only to young people, the film assumes an honest, authentic perspective on the trials and tribulations of adulthood. In the face of hardships without easy solutions, all that Lila can do is simply navigate each day the best she can, and hope those in her orbit understand her circumstances and take her choices (and mistakes) in stride.

As highlighted by its pitch-perfect finale, “South Mountain” demonstrates a realistically complex conception of stock ideas like “vengeance,” “moving on” and “healing,” and Ethan Mass’s cinematography echoes the material’s dualities in its delicate interplay of light and dark. Guiding the material from start to finish, however, is Balsam, who expresses much with little: a charged look in a sauna that functions as flirting; a gaze upwards on a bed at a moment of warring desires; a silent glance through a screen door that’s wrought with equal measures of relief and misery. In her reserved countenance, Brougher’s film speaks volumes.

Film Review: 'South Mountain'

Reviewed online, Stamford, Conn., June 18, 2019. (In SXSW, BAMcinemaFest film festivals.) Running time: 85 MIN.

Production: An Avernal Poole production (International Sales: Cinetic, New York). Producer: Susan A. Stover, Maria Rosenblum, Kristin M. Frost. Executive producers: Jean-Christophe Castelli. Co-producers: Raj Trivedi.

Crew: Director, writer: Hilary Brougher. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Ethan Mass. Editor: Maria Rosenblum. Music: Herdis Stefansdottir.

With: Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Michael Oberholtzer, Macaulee Cassady, Violet Rea, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Guthrie Mass, Isis Masoud.

More Film

  • Uncut Gems

    Listen: Adam Sandler Wore $400,000 Worth of Diamonds and Gold in 'Uncut Gems'

    Adam Sandler may not have received a Golden Globe or SAG Awards nomination for his work in “Uncut Gems,” but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a shot at the Oscars. It will be a tough road to get there, but despite some snubs, the National Board of Review named Sandler the year’s best actor [...]

  • Chinonye Chukwu Clemency

    Chinonye Chukwu on Golden Globes of Female Directors Shutout

    “Clemency” writer-director Chinonye Chukwu is weighing in on the HFPA’s failure to nominated a female director for the 2020 Golden Globes. “It’s part of the systemic oppressions that we’re all apart of and that’s internalized in many,” Chukwu told Variety in response to Monday morning’s announcement. “We need to get people in positions of power who [...]

  • Brad Pitt Dede Gardner Jeremy Kleiner

    Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner to Receive Producers Guild Honor

    The Producers Guild of America will honor Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B with the David O. Selznick Achievement Award. They will accept the honor at the 31st Annual Producers Guild Awards on Jan. 18 at the Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles. Previous recipients include Steven Spielberg, Barbara Broccoli, Saul Zaentz, [...]

  • Little Women BTS

    Golden Globes' Snub of Women Directors Has Depressing Implications (Column)

    It was a schizophrenic, bad news, good news kind of week for women in Hollywood. To quote Natalie Portman at the 2018 Golden Globe Awards ceremony, “And here are all the male nominees.” Yep, once again, the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. failed to nominate any female directors, as we disappointingly learned when the contenders for [...]

  • Matteo Garrone's Pinocchio

    Roberto Benigni, Matteo Garrone Unveil New Live-Action 'Pinocchio' in Rome

    Italian director Matteo Garrone unveiled his live-action version of “Pinocchio” in Rome on Thursday together with Oscar-winner Roberto Benigni, who plays Mastro Geppetto, and other key cast members ahead of the hotly anticipated film’s holiday release in Italy. Garrone, known for dark arthouse titles such as “Gomorrah” and Cannes title “Dogman,” made it clear that [...]

  • Participant, Magnolia Pictures Buy 'John Lewis:

    Magnolia Pictures, Participant Buy 'John Lewis: Good Trouble' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Participant and Magnolia Pictures have acquired North American rights to “John Lewis: Good Trouble,” a look at the life and career of the civil rights activist and congressional leader. The film was executive produced and financed by CNN Films, AGC Studios and Time Studios. Magnolia is planning to release the film in the spring of [...]

  • Star Wars Maryann Brandon JJ Abrams

    How Could J.J. Abrams Follow 'Star Wars'? 'I'd Love to Direct a Play'

    When “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” debuts on Dec. 20, it will, of course, mark the official close to the nine-film Skywalker Saga, one of the most successful franchises in movie history, grossing more than $7.7 billion worldwide to date (not including spinoff films “Rogue One” and “Solo”). “The Rise of Skywalker” also marks [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content