In Putty Hill, Matthew Porterfield traced the lingering effects of an untimely death through a mixture of faux-documentary interviews and contemplative observation. This ethnographic approach made room for the reactions of an entire community's worth of people, many of them at the fringes of the tragedy, but the intent was clear, charting the impression a life makes on the people it touches, how its departure flows outward like ripples on a pond. In I Used to Be Darker, Porterfield pursues a similarly indirect process, observing the creeping residual damage from a series of intertwined personal crises. Yet just as Putty Hill fine-tuned the rudimentary interpersonal analysis of Hamilton into something more focused and immediate, this film pushes into more conventional territory, taking on the stolid pacing of a standard-issue Sundance drama, with a few key touches to set it apart.
After a summer love affair goes wrong, Irish teenager Taryn (Deragh Campbell) ditches her seasonal job at an amusement park in Ocean City, Maryland. After taking a knife to some tacky beach art, she decamps to the home of her aunt and uncle, musicians who she expects will offer some much-needed shelter and support. The catch is that their marriage is itself in tatters, with Kim (Kim Taylor Coleman) in the process of moving out, robbing Bill (Ned Oldham) of his stability and most of his musical instruments. Finding fractured confusion instead of the cozy consolation she expected, Taryn continues to break down, and the convergence of these two dramatic situations creates a series of cross-currents that reverberate throughout this small movie.
The effects of these colliding incidents finds its clearest expression in the relationship between Taryn and her cousin, Abby (Hannah Gross), whose renewed friendship begins to crumble as the strain on both of them mounts. It's here that the film starts to feel familiar, carefully doting on sad, sensitive characters sulking around their empty houses. There's little of the formal daring that made Porterfield's previous efforts feel fresh, and while the characters are still carefully crafted and the space they inhabit still artfully presented, there's the definite sense that more could have been done with this material. One continuing issue is that rather than strictly focusing on fallout, the film repeatedly disrupts its quiet observations with extraneous narrative developments, including some late-coming revelations that add little besides third-act fireworks.
One thing that grounds and differentiates the film is the musical performances, which feature songs played in their entirety, the camera lingering patiently at the periphery. This reads as the natural consequence of a story about a family of musicians, and grows organically from an early fight between Kim and Bill, in which each admonish the other to “write a song about it.” These interludes allow the characters to articulate doubts and fears, and the expressiveness with which they do so stands in purposeful contrast to their impotence in describing their feelings verbally. Just as Putty Hill allowed us to watch the contamination of death to work its way out of a communal bloodstream, from grief to some tentative form of release, the songs performed here function as the creative end point of emotional trauma, revealing pain gradually transfigured into art.