Movie Meltdown

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My Darker Side


by Bryan Renfro 

     I was immediately drawn just to the title... "I Used to Be Darker". Beautiful and grim, it already begins to set the mood for a film I hadn't even seen yet. That line is taken from a from a Bill Callahan song, and it does in fact perfectly capture the tone of what you are about to see.

    "I Used to Be Darker" is the third film from indie director Matthew Porterfield. In seeing this movie, it makes me not only want to delve into the director's earlier work, but also solidifies him as someone I will be watching to see his future projects from here on out. Because what Porterfield gives us with "I Used to Be Darker" is a masterfully handled film. One that is brilliantly structured and phenomenally understated.

     The presentation of the plot and characters is one of my favorite parts of the movie. I always love films that find a way to just drop you into the situation. Without a huge setup or tons of explanation. When you are just immediately immersed into the character's lives as it is happening. It's as if the film itself assumes you are smart enough to read the situation and access the relationships - and never feels the need to talk down to you by spelling out each and every little plot point. Instead it lets you experience the story with the characters, and in turn makes you massively more invested in what is going on in their lives.

     In fact what is going on is, our main character ends up in a bad situation and when she goes to her distant family members for help, she finds they are already deep into their own unfortunate set of circumstances. In a shrewdly written screenplay by Porterfield and Amy Belk, it sort of presents the personal crisis version of - out of the frying pan, into the fire. But it's done in a way that's very subtle and allows the actors to show the full range of the drama at hand... and how they deal with it.

     "I Used to Be Darker" beautifully captures a snapshot of dysfunction and bitterness. But not in a showy, Hollywood way that asks the actors to put on a dramatic display of how sad they are. What is refreshing here is, it's more of a realistic version of the scenario. It doesn't focus on the bad things that are happening, but how the characters involved deal with them. It looks at how we manage the dysfunctional things that go on in our lives everyday.

     And that is what is amazing about the film. It doesn't set up some outlandish plot and ask you to accept what is going on. It just introduces you to certain situations, and more then likely - they will seem somewhat familiar to you. If you've ever been a teenager, over-whelmed by the tough choices in front of you? If you've ever stood with a box of your ex's possessions waiting to return them after a relationship ends? If you've even had to meet the "new person" in that ex's life and conduct yourself in a civilized manner, when all you really want to do is punch them in the face? If you've ever felt your life on the verge of a major change, and you have no idea what to do next... then you will understand this movie.

     I found myself not only understanding the film, but also being completely drawn to the characters involved. The acting is terrific, which is made even more impressive considering that this is the first on-screen performance of many of the cast. And maybe that's why they bring such authenticity to the roles. Each person is drawing from real life situations, not past "performances" and so their responses to everything going on ring true.

     Deragh Campbell does an remarkable job as the somewhat central character Taryn. She plays the aforementioned over-whelmed teenager with a purity that may only have been accessible to a first-time actress. She is not only effective, but also charming in the process. Hannah Gross plays her cousin Abby, who is a girl most of us probably know. Smart, beautiful and confident... but all those things still don't protect you from the hardships of life. At times she is completely detached (or desperately trying to be) and at other times she seems utterly annoyed by everyone she knows. Abby became the character I identified with most. In fact, at one point I was noticeably laughing in the theater when I heard a line come out of her mouth that was so pointlessly hostile - it sound like something I would say.

     As for the adults in the film, Ned Oldham was fascinating to watch as Bill. A well-adjusted, responsible man dealing with a huge curve thrown at him. Oldham plays it completely restrained, as we watch him fight to deal with the situation as rationally as he can. Always trying to be level-headed, but never able to fend off the bitterness that seeps into almost every line he delivers. We watch as he slowly unravels and deals with things on a more emotional level as the plot goes on. And Kim Taylor does a fine job, but is also faced with being villainized by the circumstances. She's not a villain by any means, but she is much harder to sympathize with then the rest of the leads. So her performance faces an uphill battle that I certainly don't envy. 

     The other major element of this film is the music. It does feature a lot of songs, but not in that overbearing, calculated way. It has an integrated soundtrack. One that takes place all around us (again returning to that realistic style that makes this film so good). For example, the music engulfs our characters as they walk into a club and they are assaulted by the sounds on-stage. That scene in particular is extraordinary to experience. It feels like a real venue, an actual place we may have been, and we just hover in the back of the scene watching how people behave and interact within the setting.

     But we also get many more performance-based scenes, since two of our lead characters are singer/song-writers (skillfully cast by Porterfield with actual singer/song-writers Oldham and Taylor). So because these people live with music in their lives every day, we watch as they use music to convey their feelings. And eventually, even using it to help work through their emotions. And because the actors/musicians can deliver such genuine and heartfelt performances, it works. What could have felt like a break in the plot to showcase a song now available for download, instead seems valid. And we see how someone who has music in their heart, uses it to try to maintain and even try to fix their emotional situation. And the audience benefits with some impressive musical performances.  

     And in the end, the film wraps up exactly the way it should. And the more I thought about it - the way I wanted it to. This movie provides us with a window to voyeuristically peek into the lives of several people, at what can only be described as "a rough point". But in the process it showcases not only some fine writing and acting, but it also captures the strength of character that is needed for all of us to survive those rough points in our own lives. And maybe that's what we need to take from this film.


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