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.

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

  • Themba-Bhebhe

    Durban FilmMart’s Themba Bhebhe on Diversity: ‘We Are At a Crossroads’

    DURBAN–A new thematic strand at this year’s Durban FilmMart, Engage @ DFM, offers a series of think tanks and in-depth discussions concerning diversity and de-colonial approaches to and models for filmmaking. To head up the new initiative, the DFM tapped guest curator Themba Bhebhe, who has led the Diversity & Inclusion initiative at the last two editions of [...]

  • Durban Film Festival 2019 / Copyright

    South African Creatives Grapple Over Copyright Amendment Bill

    DURBAN–The South African government is planning to update its four-decade-old copyright legislation, but what that means for filmmakers was up for debate during a contentious and often heated session at the Durban FilmMart this week. While the Copyright Amendment Bill awaits the signature of President Cyril Ramaphosa, industry stakeholders remain divided over how the proposed [...]

  • 'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office

    'The Lion King' Ruling Box Office With Dazzling Debut at $180 Million

    Disney’s “The Lion King” has jolted the North American box office back to life with an opening weekend in the $180 million range, estimates showed Saturday. “The Lion King” will record the second-best opening of 2019 — and could replace “Incredibles 2,” which launched last year with $182.7 million, as the ninth biggest North American [...]

  • 'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in

    'Tomb Raider' Star Simon Yam in Hospital After Stabbing

    Hugely popular Hong Kong actor, Simon Yam was stabbed while on stage Saturday at a presentation in Zhongshan, Guangdong province in southern China. He is in hospital recovering. The incident happened at the opening of a branch of the Beijing Easyhome building materials company, where Yam was a guest. A man was seen rushing on [...]

  • Brazilian President Jair Bolosnaro attends the

    Bolsonaro Threatens Brazil’s Central Film Fund with Censorship or Closure

    In typical shoot-from-the-hip remarks, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro has declared that Ancine, Brazil’s powerful state-backed federal film agency, should accept “filters”or face closure. “If it can’t have a filter, we’ll close Ancine, or privatize it,” Bolsonaro added, attacking Ancine, which plows some $300 million a year into Brazil’s film and TV industries, for supporting [...]


    Director Sara Gouveia on ‘Looking At Resilience Through Art’

    DURBAN–The Mapiko dance of Mozambique’s indigenous Makonde people was long used as a tool for social commentary. But during the colonial era it became an act of political resistance, prompting the Portuguese to stamp it out during Mozambique’s 10-year war for independence. Decades later, the art has been revived as a celebration of freedom. For [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content