Daily | Matt Porterfield’s I USED TO BE DARKER

I Used to Be Darker

Deragh Campbell in ‘I Used to Be Darker’

In the new issue of the Brooklyn Rail, Paul Felten notes that “at first glance,” Matt Porterfield‘s “films may seem devoted to a shopworn notion of meditative authenticity as an end unto itself. He uses non-professional actors. He often keeps his camera at a distance from them, letting scenes play out at length without any apparent concern for dramaturgical economy. There are long shots of people doing things like mowing lawns. There is mumbling. But the pseudo-documentary strain is just the half of it; watched closely, the films reveal a rigorously formal sensibility that’s obsessive, fetishistic (someday someone will write a study of Porterfield’s work called ‘The Girls in Their Denim Shorts’), and increasingly, thrillingly complicated. In the course of three remarkable movies—Hamilton, Putty Hill, and now I Used to Be Darker—Porterfield has moved closer to the people he’s interested in.”

“In Putty Hill, Matthew Porterfield traced the lingering effects of an untimely death through a mixture of faux-documentary interviews and contemplative observation,” writes Jesse Cataldo in Slant. “This ethnographic approach made room for the reactions of an entire community’s worth of people, many of them at the fringes of the tragedy, but the intent was clear, charting the impression a life makes on the people it touches, how its departure flows outward like ripples on a pond. In I Used to Be Darker, Porterfield pursues a similarly indirect process, observing the creeping residual damage from a series of intertwined personal crises. Yet just as Putty Hill fine-tuned the rudimentary interpersonal analysis of Hamilton into something more focused and immediate, this film pushes into more conventional territory, taking on the stolid pacing of a standard-issue Sundance drama, with a few key touches to set it apart.”

The Dissolve‘s Noel Murray has his problems with the film, but he does a damn fine job of outlining the story written by Porterfield and Amy Belk: “Deragh Campbell stars as Taryn, a waifish young woman who leaves her home in Northern Ireland without telling her parents where she’s headed, then spends a rough summer working at a Maryland beach resort before fleeing to Baltimore to stay with her Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and Uncle Bill (Ned Oldham). When Taryn arrives, she discovers that her aunt and uncle are staying in different houses, with Bill having bought into the life of a middle-class corporate drone, giving up on his dream of being a indie-rocker, while Kim continues to tour with her rootsy band—which includes Kim’s new lover as a member. When Bill and Kim’s daughter Abby (Hannah Gross) comes home, she’s initially happy to have someone to talk to besides her overcompensating mother or her sullen, drunken father. But then Abby gets frustrated with Taryn’s unwillingness to explain why she’s there, and the two women have a falling-out that makes an already-tense family situation even tenser.”

“Scripted like a series of chronological snapshots seen from a slight distance, the film exhibits a contemplative quiet and attentiveness to detail that enhances its issues of regret, bitterness, and confusion,” writes Nick Schager in the Voice. “Meanwhile, Porterfield uses music as a vehicle for evocative emotional expression, be it a heavy metal band’s chaotic din or Kim’s final ballad of wistful yearning.”

For the AV Club‘s A.A. Dowd, “what this tender indie lacks in incident, it makes up for with a wealth of sentiment. While divorce dramas tend to run on the bitter bons mot exchanged between their warring lovers, here’s one in which the pregnant silences speak as loudly as the toxic words.”

“Campbell and Gross have an exceedingly natural rapport that seems more lived than acted,” writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York, “and the film is especially good whenever it ventures out, doc-like, into the Baltimore music scene that means so much to these characters. Less successful are the sour interactions between Kim and Bill, since nonactors Taylor and Oldham are asked to shoulder several sharp turns of emotion—notably in a lengthy confrontation ruled by alcohol and heartache—that they can’t believably convey.”

“Mr. Porterfield might sometimes be too subtle for his own good,” suggests Jeannette Catsoulis in the New York Times, “but by taking us on a low-key ramble through the ever-shifting feelings of a fractured family, he has woven a dreamy, detached chronicle of dissolution and renewal.”

For Simon Abrams at, “while it’s exciting to see Porterfield put so much emphasis on his actors’ body language, you can’t help but want to get closer.” He finds it “hard to appreciate an intentionally blurry portrait of a family that’s so impressionistic that all you can see of its already-withdrawn characters are their shadows.”

On the other hand, Ty Landis at In Review Online: “Whether it’s Taryn and Abby’s natural chemistry together or the cutting disputes between Kim and Bill, this foursome occupies the same broken present which Porterfield mines in vividly expressive ways.”

I Used to Be Darker premiered at Sundance and opens tonight at New York’s IFC Center, where Portfield will be on hand for three screenings throughout the weekend—with occasional music. Here‘s a list of further cities and dates. Here in Keyframe, Jonathan Marlow‘s had a good long talk with Porterfield and Calum Marsh has examined the filmmakers use of space (and place) in Putty Hill.

More interviews: A.A. Dowd at the AV Club; and the Sundance Institute’s Nate von Zumwalt talks with Porterfield about “his creative roots and the varying music, places, films, and other art that have shaped his work as a filmmaker.” Photographer Robin Holland‘s posted some nice shots of Porterfield and Gross.

Updates, 10/14: “Porterfield’s work has been consistently marked by a moral and psychological sensitivity, the kind that allows nonprofessional actors (the only type he casts) and audiences alike to trust in his melancholic vision just as a student might feel a bond with a sympathetic pedagogue,” writes Dan Sullivan for Film Comment. “Simply put, he has a touch all his own: the sparse and rigorous Hamilton bares only a slight cosmetic resemblance to I Used To Be Darker, his latest and most accomplished effort yet, but his miniaturist attention to some of the subtlest fluctuations of the human soul is as evident now as it was then.”

Steve McFarlane interviews Porterfield for BOMB.

Update, 11/1: “It’s drama on tiptoes, and the rushes of emotion are unexpected and come often,” writes Ray Pride for Newcity Film. “The acuity of Porterfield’s understated and lyrical scrutiny of chance moments in familiar circumstances is intense.”

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