Matthew Porterfield’s Sollers Point doesn’t exactly sound distinctive on paper, as the film follows an ex-con and former drug dealer, Keith (McCaul Lombardi), who’s about to finish up a stint under house arrest and is attempting to rejoin society. Like Porterfield’s other films, though, this plot is a thread that unifies casually and breathtakingly staged epiphanies. Porterfield withholds information from us so that we share Keith’s anxiety, as every moment in Sollers Point is fraught with the danger of opacity. Unlike many criminals attempting to go legit, Keith is blessed with a support system—friends and family, including his father, Carol (Jim Belushi)—that underscores the tight-knitted dimensions of his Baltimore neighborhood. Yet Keith feels alone, and we watch the film with dread as he unshackles his demons.
Sollers Point is a moving and elusive blend of naturalism and melodrama, less a character study than an analysis of a community. Keith wanders his neighborhood in vignettes that illustrate the webbed connections existing between gangs of various ethnic backgrounds, junkies, retirees, educational administrators, and law enforcers. Porterfield reveals Sollers Point’s economy to be based on steel manufacturing, lingering on the comfort that Carol and his former co-workers take, say, in playing cards with a couple of beers on a nice afternoon as they allude to the old days. With little expositional emphasis, Porterfield suggests that Carol’s generation had more opportunities than Keith’s—an inequality that’s fracturing the racial unity of the neighborhood. Carol and Keith have African-American friends, and Keith’s ex, Courtney (Zazie Beetz), is a woman of color, though Keith’s allegiance to a white gang while in prison is a point of contention with his true compatriots.
Keith’s altercations with white gang members are often shakily indebted to the conventions of crime films, and as such the viewer may long for the purity of Porterfield’s 2010 film Putty Hill, which was barely beholden to plot. An aura of tentative experimentalism pervades Sollers Point, as Porterfield appears to be testing how far he can blend his particular brand of impressionism with genre filmmaking. But one genre-infused scene, in which a local gun dealer, Wasp (Wass Stevens), sizes Keith up while testifying to the expense and pleasure of hand-rolled cigarettes, is an unforgettably volatile fusion of behavioral specificity and lurid showmanship.
Most of the film’s great moments belong in Porterfield’s traditional observational wheelhouse. We learn that Keith’s house arrest is over via a long sequence in which he jogs through his neighborhood, as fluid compositions attest to his newfound and highly tenuous and qualified freedom. Tellingly, this is the one moment in Sollers Point in which Keith doesn’t appear to be freighted with the baggage of being the black sheep of his family, which Porterfield also heartbreakingly elucidates.
Throughout the film, there are moments in which Keith watches Carol without the latter knowing, getting a sense of his father’s humanity, which he perceives yet is unable to process. Keith’s empathy for Carol, a lonely, thorny, yet essentially kind man, is blocked by his conviction that his father is ashamed of him. Keith and Carol speak in a vivid father-son code, in dialogue fraught with allusions to things we will never see or know. Keith is relentlessly energetic, desperate for approval without knowing it, while Carol moves with the heavier rhythms of an older man accustomed to disappointment. When Carol reaches out to Keith, asking about Courtney, the son snaps back, and so Carol closes off in turn, lecturing his son on using the air conditioner. They go back in forth in such a manner, with little in the way of histrionics, as Porterfield recognizes such theatrics as a form of vicarious relief—a way of releasing emotions that often refuse, in our actual lives, to be exorcised.
The viewer waits for Keith to recognize how good he has it. Ladybug (Lynn Cohen), a grandmother figure, feeds Keith soup and crab cakes and begs him to shape up and stay away from booze and the underworld. Porterfield stages this scene in a warm dining room that abounds in shades of autumnal hearth and comfort. Keith fraternizes with a prostitute named Jessie (Everleigh Brenner), who gives him a freebie. The kindness with which Keith and Jessie regard one another refutes brutal john/hooker clichés and illustrates the acceptance for which Keith longs—and his affectionate, respectful way of kissing Jessie goodbye on the lips is haunting and intangibly revealing.
Sollers Point achieves a remarkable double awareness of how Keith sees life and how it actually is, capturing the alien-ness of being an addict or an ex-con. Porterfield’s compositions are beautiful, affirming, yet also distant, and to the point of occasionally reminding one of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films. Keith is understood to be a potentially unreachable architect of his own destruction, as he’s yearning for structure and drive—for love—that’s in front of him. In the film’s greatest moment, melodrama and naturalism totally merge, as Carol pleads for his son’s mercy, earning Keith a reprieve. Tragically, Keith will almost certainly never know of Carol’s actions. Because try as they might, this father and son can’t see one another.