Not much happened in Matthew Porterfield’s first film, Hamilton, which was sort of the point: The characters, lower-middle-class Baltimore suburbanites, moved in static compositions, going about their chores, and neither they nor the audience seemed to have much idea where it was going or what it meant. What set Hamilton apart, if anything, was its acuity of observation—the way small moments, like someone waiting for his laundry, took on the rhythms of everyday life.
Porterfield’s latest, Putty Hill, follows the same basic template, but narratively and formally, it’s a subtle but confident step forward. This time, the story follows the friends and family members of a young man, Cory, who has recently died from a drug overdose, in the 24 hours leading up to his funeral. As in Hamilton, there are no big speeches, and the climactic funeral offers no closure, at least in the traditional sense. The real drama comes from the building-up of day-to-day events, the way characters cycle through habits, addressing (or failing to address) the way larger events reshape their lives.
The biggest difference here is that Porterfield has added faux-documentary interviews, in which characters talk to an off-camera voice, recalling a similar scene in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. In one way, this allows for the characters to reflect on what’s happening without breaking the film’s realism. These conversations never sound stilted because Porterfield understands the way people talk, and he’s chosen amateur or nonprofessional actors who sound that way. The most fraught material is dealt with matter-of-factly. In the opening scene, paintballer James (James Siebor) informs us that his brother died a week ago, and he doesn’t know if he’ll go to heaven or hell.
But the interviews are also an intrusion, insofar as they allow Porterfield to address his own role as the outsider attempting to examine a hermetically sealed community, how his constantly unmoving camera tends to keep its distance, never judging but always watching. In one of the crucial scenes, we watch as a group of Cory’s friends and siblings swim together in a lake, taking off their clothes, smoking pot, and letting the water wash over them. It’s a quiet moment of rejuvenation that comments on the teenagers’ sense of togetherness, much in the same way that the skater kids in Carroll Park keep each others’ backs. In another strange aesthetic break, one of those kids tags a wall in the park with his spray can. Overlaid subtitles translate what the graffiti says: “Rest in peace Cory.”
This is less an “explanation” of what’s happening than it is an attempt to identify the unique codes by which these people understand the world around them. Cory’s cousin, Jenny (Sky Ferreira), who has returned to her hometown from Denver, tells us that she doesn’t miss Baltimore, but she quickly falls back into the same old routines—namely, chain-smoking with her girlfriends and arguing with her absent tattoo-artist father, Spike (Charles Sauers). Jenny parties as well as she pouts, joking about the funeral (“You have to wear black, right? How depressing”), before freaking out at her dad on a balcony, telling him she wants to go home. As much as she avoids talking about Cory, it’s clear how much the past still holds a grip on her. In the movie’s transfixing final sequence, Jenny and her friend drive down a dead-end street at night to find Cory’s old house. The anxiety of their search is emphasized by Porterfield’s camera, which stays fixed on the front windshield, keeping them just out of frame. What they end up finding says a lot about why they came out there.
Putty Hill might be the least histrionic film of its kind. There are no naked murderous skaters a la Kids or Paranoid Park, no dark hidden pasts. Porterfield condescends to no one. Like Charles Burnett or even Jia Zhang-ke, he’s more interested in the poetry of small gestures. It would’ve been easy to mock the wake scene, which takes place in a karaoke bar, complete with bottles of beer and a headphone-clad MC, but Porterfield treats this moment as casual as anything else; when Ferreira stands up to belt Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You” for her dead cousin, it becomes oddly moving.
As with the nod to skating culture, Porterfield reclaims cheesy pop-culture detritus to illuminate his characters’ need for escape. The night before the funeral, Cory’s frazzled, cigarette-smoking grandmother sits up watching TV. She tells her daughter that she can’t go to the funeral because she prefers to “remember the way things were,” before asking if she’s ever seen the sitcom Reba. “She’s one of my favorites because she makes me laugh,” she says, before adding an amusing aside about Reba McEntire’s surprising acting abilities. It’s in these tossed-off moments that Putty Hill accumulates a kind of power that Hamilton didn’t have—and a message. By film’s end, it’s clear that Putty Hill isn’t really about death at all as much as it is about the more mundane ways that people deal with being hurt.