Taryn is clearly young, and clearly unsettled. If the lowly job stocking geegaws in a gaudy beach resort didn’t tip you off, the under-appointed summer-rental apartment she returns to will. When she unwraps a package from the store in the bathroom and closes the door, you immediately wonder if it’s a pregnancy test. When she shows up at a party and confronts a young man, their conversation drowned out by booming hip-hop but her anger growing visibly, you’re pretty certain it was, and how it came out.
It is a sign of director Matthew Porterfield’s growing skill and ambition that Taryn’s dilemma not only reads so clearly, but that it’s just a starting point for I Used to Be Darker (Strand DVD; streaming via Amazon and iTunes). Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a Northern Irelander, flees the beach for the comfortable home of her Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor). But things are less comfortable than they might seem. Kim and her breadwinner husband Bill (Ned Oldham) are splitting up, and their own teen-into-20s daughter Abby (Hannah Gross) isn’t taking it well. No one is, really.
Like its predecessors, Hamilton and Putty Hill, I Used to Be Darker concerns itself less with plot than with character. After the opening burst of deft visual storytelling, Porterfield steps back into a more observational mode—through Jeremy Sauliner’s exquisite cinematography, he rarely directs you toward what to look at so much as who to look at. He captures enough of Kim’s steely glares at Bill to convey that she’s all done with cozy domesticity. We spend enough time watching sullen Bill to pick up on his decency, and his hurt at being left behind. Both actors, and their characters, are musicians, and both get full-bore musical moments—totally unforced—that reveal and reinforce their feelings and their ways of coping with the breakup. Meanwhile, Abby and Taryn bob on the tumultuous emotional currents, trying to face up to dawning adulthood as their shared refuge crumbles.
I Used to Be Darker gains added power from its rootedness in its particular setting—his hometown of Baltimore. Kim and Bill’s rambling house is clearly some affluent family’s house, right down to the refrigerator magnets. When Abby and Taryn go to a warehouse show, it’s a warehouse show (featuring undersung Baltimore thudders Dope Body). That groundedness helps sell the subtle emotional revelations here.
Porterfield never leans on it, but you start to notice that stolid Bill is rarely seen without a drink in his hand. During detours to the house where Kim’s now living, seemingly with members of her band, you begin to see that she’s traded one form of fraught domesticity for another. Abby and Taryn, young adults that they are, plainly need help that they’re not getting amid the wounded retreats. Unlike more typical family dramas, there are no big speeches, and there’s no capital-“l” Learning. There are just a handful of regular-ish people navigating the shoals of love and disappointment, captured beautifully.
Recent Canadian film Nuit # 1 (Kino Lorber DVD) takes a similarly undramatic approach to parsing a relationship, though with less success. It opens with a pair of utterly arresting sequences, though: a crowd full of sweaty dancers leaping and pitching in slow motion, with what must be booming dance music ebbed and muffled into a sub-aqueous drone. Abruptly, two of the dancers (Catherine de Léan and Dimitri Storoge) find themselves in a grotty apartment. They find themselves naked. They find themselves in the throes of carnal abandon as maybe only two young strangers can.
And, after their ardor cools and gray-green walls loom in, they start to go their separate ways. But they don’t. Instead, they talk. He talks about his hand-to-mouth artist’s existence and blurts out pretentious statements about reading and society. She mostly keeps quiet and asks questions. She tries to engage him by ripping open his pants. He balks. She leaves. Eventually she returns, and eventually she talks—about her job as a teacher, about her unsatisfied search for something to hold on to amid clubbing, sex, and the occasional drugs.
They talk, and they talk, but they mostly talk at each other, rather to each other. Writer/director Anne Émond unearths some flinty truths about the way people comport themselves in the world, and certainly about the way they talk, and for a single-set four-hander, it rarely feels claustrophobic. But neither can she evade the aura of miserable solipsism that pervades their philosophizing. Maybe they learn something, but you kind of don’t care.