'South Mountain': Film Review | SXSW 2019

Ethan Mass
Painful, potent scenes from a troubled marriage.

Veteran actors Talia Balsam and Scott Cohen play a couple going through a bitter breakup during a summer in the Catskills.

At a time when many people are rightly lobbying for more women directors, it is a pleasure to see Hilary Brougher’s South Mountain. More than a decade ago, Brougher directed Stephanie Daley, a provocative female-centric film starring Tilda Swinton and Amber Tamblyn, but she hasn’t had many opportunities since then. Although this new pic has failings, it compels not just as a dissection of the problems facing women of a certain age but as a showcase for a fine actress, Talia Balsam, who isn’t seen as often as her talents would warrant. After all, one of the things we’re missing when female directors fail to get opportunities is the chance to see important stories interpreted by gifted female actors.

Balsam, the daughter of Oscar-winning actor Martin Balsam and actress Joyce Van Patten, has worked fairly steadily in television (Mad Men, Divorce) and film, but she hasn’t had many leading roles. In South Mountain, Balsam plays Lila, an artist and teacher who is going through marital and family problems over the course of a summer at her home in the Catskills. She is raising several children when she learns that her husband (Scott Cohen) has just had a baby with another woman, which disrupts the family’s equilibrium.

The film is reminiscent of some other recent movies about ordinary domestic life, such as Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life. It might also be seen as an American equivalent of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, which chronicled the complicated life of a couple going through turmoil in their relationship. Of course South Mountain can’t compare with the Bergman film, partly because that movie was much longer and had a chance to explore the complexities of a marriage over a period of years. But within the shorter time period covered in the movie, Brougher does a good job capturing the push and pull within a fairly large extended family. In addition to her kids and their friends, Lila has a close friend (Andrus Nichols) who is suffering from cancer and going through chemotherapy; she is a regular guest at the family’s gatherings.

One weakness of this film is the predictability of some of the dramatic events. As soon as we see a younger friend of one of the couple’s daughters, we can guess that the frustrated Lila will have an affair with him. And we can also guess that Lila will have a sexual encounter with her ex-husband, which dramatizes the complexity of tortured marital ties. However, the vivid scene in which Lila tries to poison her husband is not quite so predictable and emerges as one of the most striking episodes in the picture.

The greatest strength of the movie lies in the acting. Balsam makes Lila a thoroughly fascinating character — frustrated, angry, sensual, always caring. Cohen does an excellent job conveying the duplicity as well as the attractiveness of the philandering husband. The actors playing the couple’s children also do a creditable job, but there are probably too many characters for some of these performers to make much of an impression during the tight 85-minute running time. 

The rustic locale is well captured by cinematographer Ethan Mass, who happens to be Brougher’s husband. The couple’s fraternal twins play two of the teenage children in the movie, so this is definitely a family affair. (The pic was even shot at the home of Brougher’s mother.) But South Mountain transcends the limitations of some nakedly personal films to offer an affecting vision of frayed family ties.

Cast: Talia Balsam, Scott Cohen, Andrus Nichols, Violet Rea, Michael Oberholtzer, Macaulee Rusnak Cassaday
Director-screenwriter: Hilary Brougher
Producers: Susan A. Stover, Maria Rosenblum, Kristin M. Frost
Executive producer: Jean-Christophe Castelli
Cinematographer: Ethan Mass
Production and costume designer: Storm Garner
Editor: Maria Rosenblum
Music: Herdis Stefansdottir
Casting: Paul Schnee, Kerry Barden
Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Narrative Feature Competition)

85 minutes