Film Review: Putty Hill

Imagine <i>Gummo </i>without the bizarre humor and you have <i>Putty Hill</i>.

Matt Porterfield’s bleak but absorbing blend of documentary and narrative doesn’t make Putty Hill original, but this portrait of disaffected youths mourning a deceased friend in working-class Baltimore is as good as any other film of its type. Viewers receptive to cinéma-vérité techniques in narrative films will appreciate this effort, though others looking for something more will be disappointed.

Putty Hill is Porterfield’s second feature, following his similar Hamilton (2006). The director has created a film as close to documentary style as possible, despite the fact that it was cast, scripted and directed. Blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction shouldn’t offend audiences already used to the now-common approach. However, purists will think Porterfield is cheating.

The film covers the days following the death of Corey, a young man who succumbed to a heroin overdose. While few of the Putty Hill citizens knew Corey well, the unexpected death forces them to reflect upon their own empty lives. In the days leading up to the funeral, we witness young and old alike, in a variety of settings, discussing Corey, his family and their community, trying to better understand what has happened.

As with Hamilton, Porterfield used the actual residents of the area in his cast and allowed them to improvise with his script, giving the film a solid authenticity (few people seem to be “acting”). Reportedly, singer Sky Ferreira, playing Corey’s cousin, was the only professional of the bunch and she gets one very showy, dramatic moment. The darkly lit, fly-on-the-wall cinematography by Jeremy Saulnier and dreary, mundane art direction by Sophie Toporkoff complement Porterfield’s concept, rarely attempting anything “arty” (though black-and-white cinematography would have yielded more powerful results). The isolated musical moments become all the more indelible thanks to the wise lack of non-diegetic music—particularly in the climactic karaoke bar sequence (though the singing is actually a little too good).

The main drawback of the film is its lack of comic absurdity in the face of tragedy. While the characters and their reflections seem genuine, one might think there would be more quirky or warped thinking among these individuals, who sometimes come across as generic working-class folks. Perhaps their lack of identity is intentional—after all, the point is they hardly knew Corey and Porterfield refrains from using empathetic or well-lit close-ups; still, a few unique characteristics would have made the film more memorable, without having to go as far as Harmony Korine’s Gummo or becoming as exploitative as the films of Larry Clark (Kids, Bully).

Putty Hill should get an audience: Its word of mouth has been mostly excellent, even if it isn’t all it has been cracked up to be.