I Used to Be Darker: Sundance Review

I Used to Be Darker

U.S.A. (Director: Matthew Porterfield, Screenwriters: Amy Belk, Matthew Porterfield)

A runaway seeks refuge with her aunt and uncle in Baltimore, only to find their marriage ending and her cousin in crisis. In the days that follow, the family struggles to let go while searching for things to sustain them. Cast: Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Kim Taylor, Ned Oldham, Geoff Grace, Nick Petr.

A low-key drama that struggles to generate rooting interest at almost every level.

Matthew Porterfield’s third feature incorporates a predominantly non-professional cast.

PARK CITY -- Proponents of documentary-style realism might find an appealing perspective on awkward family dynamics in filmmaker Matthew Porterfield’s third feature. Narratively offhanded yet formally deliberate, the film could also test the patience of even the more receptive among fans of independent cinema. Monterey Media will release the title theatrically this summer, looking to match the modest box office returns of Porterfield’s 2011 film Putty Hill.

After a summer working at the Maryland seashore following her surreptitious departure from her home in Northern Ireland, 19-year-old Taryn (Deragh Campbell) flees to Baltimore after a bad breakup, seeking refuge with her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor). Arriving unannounced, she discovers that Kim and husband Bill (Ned Oldham) are in the throes of a combative split and that her college-age cousin Abby (Hannah Gross) has distanced herself from the turmoil with acting auditions in New York.

Taryn tries to settle in for a brief respite at her relatives’ home, but finds the household’s emotional landscape constantly shifting. Kim has moved out to co-habitate with her much younger new boyfriend, and Bill has become a bundle of anger and angst, trying to assimilate his unorthodox marital situation. When Abby finally returns, she remains distant, resentful of her parents’ breakup and unsure how to integrate Taryn into her realigned family dynamics. After Taryn discloses that she’s pregnant, dismissing any interest on the part of her former boyfriend, the additive burden pushes the family toward a crisis point that might lead to either bitter renunciation or uneasy reconciliation.  

Porterfield exhibits a carefully cultivated aesthetic of long, static takes that echo the quagmire of emotion trapping the characters in cycles of repetitive, unproductive behavior. While the framing of these mostly handheld shots is sometimes artful, the slim storyline is further restrained by a lack of visual variety, leading to an overall sense of stasis. Porterfield’s and co-writer Amy Belk’s script lacks both distinct arcs and clear through-lines, leaving the characters to spend a good deal of screen time emoting, but not really progressing.

First-timer Campbell appears to lack the depth of experience to fully flesh out her role as the troubled young woman, despite a potentially volatile backstory. Unevenly supported by non-pros Taylor and Oldham (who are actually both professional musicians), there’s not much dramatic tension for her to play off of either. Gross is underutilized as her conflicted cousin torn between warring parents, a further handicap to narrative development. While Porterfield’s experimentation with casting might appear admirable for its casual informality and potential spontaneity, these choices pay off only intermittently, rarely achieving any actual urgency.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, NEXT; Berlin International Film Festival, Forum
Production companies: The Hamilton Film Group in association with Nomadic Independence Pictures and Steady Orbits
Cast: Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Kim Taylor, Ned Oldham
Director: Matthew Porterfield
Screenwriters: Amy Belk, Matthew Porterfield
Producers: Eric Bannat, Steve Holmgren, Ryan Zacarias
Executive Producers: Jane Brown, Dan Carey, Jack Dwyer, Walter S. Hall, Laura Heberton, Celia Mingus-Zaentz
Director of photography: Jeremy Saulnier
Production designer: Bart Mangrum
Costume designer: Lane Harlan
Editor: Marc Vives
Sales: Paradigm
No rating, 90 minutes