“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.
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.