Innovation isn’t the province of Steel City, which is composed of basic Sundance cinema elements: a chilly working-class milieu shot in somber hues, a damaged, mixed-up protagonist beset by familial and romantic dilemmas, and solemn montages set to Spartan folk-rock guitar ballads. And yet aside from the last of these tropes—which contributes more insistent sentimentality than is tolerable—writer-director Brian Jun’s directorial debut exhibits enough unfussy familiarity with its tattered blue-collar locale, as well as cynicism regarding the possibility of completely transcending one’s lousy lot in life, to overcome its more well-worn components. Jun’s unforced direction, full of downbeat panoramas of his run-down industrial Midwestern setting, provides the sturdy framework for the tumultuous tale of PJ (Thomas Guiry), a young man still grappling with the rotten legacy he inherited from his father Carl (John Heard), who’s currently in jail for vehicular manslaughter. Lonely and angry, PJ navigates life like a blind animal, barreling forward with no clear direction but a furious self-destructive streak that’s also shared by his brother Ben (Clayne Crawford), a steel mill worker, husband, and new father with an adulterous streak. PJ’s attempted rehabilitation involves intervention from his stern Vietnam vet Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry) and his girlfriend Amy (America Ferrera), the latter of whom the self-loathing PJ likes to regularly slander as “kinda fat.” Amid this cornucopia of fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, cops, criminals, and bartenders, Jun interrupts his film’s mood of quiet gloominess with contentious arguments and fisticuffs, yet it’s Guiry’s pent-up performance as PJ that adds credible emotional substance to this conventional portrait of the caustic parental ties that bind. “Nobody tells the truth. Everybody lies,” says PJ’s police officer stepfather (James McDaniel), and deception (self-perpetrated and otherwise) is ultimately fingered as a crucial cause of these characters’ problematic circumstances. If, however, Steel City posits honesty as the solution to PJ’s difficulties, it nonetheless also—in a reconciliatory finale pockmarked by an offhand, scathingly bitter comment by PJ—recognizes that no matter how well tended to, some childhood wounds leave lasting scars.
- Truly Indie
- 95 min
- Brian Jun
- Brian Jun
- John Heard, Thomas Guiry, America Ferrera, Clayne Crawford, James McDaniel, Heather McComb, Laurie Metcalf
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