I should be sold on a movie like Matthew Porterfield’s “Putty Hill.” Like a lot of movie critics, I have a soft spot for plotless, working-class dramas like Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” or Gus Van Sant’s “Paranoid Park.” And I’m fond of Porterfield’s debut, “Hamilton,” which he brought to the Wisconsin Film Festival a few years ago.
So why did “Putty Hill” leave me cold? Like “Hamilton,” the movie looks at the denizens of a forgotten neighborhood of Baltimore, nearly all of them played by non-actors encouraged to talk and act as they do in their everyday lives.
In this case, we’re in a working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, close enough to nature so local teens can head out to the gorge to pass the hash pipe and swim lazily in the river, or head down to the local skate park. It’s a place where boredom and inertia rule, but Porterfield has enough affection — or at least insight — for the place to render it convincingly.
What little plot there is in “Putty Hill” coalesces around the memory of a local young man named Cory, who overdosed the week before the events. Friends and family are coming together for a funeral, including a sister named Jenny (Sky Ferreira, the movie’s lone professional actor) who has returned home from Delaware.
In conversation between characters, we hear bits and pieces of information about Cory’s rapid downward slide, but “Putty Hill” is more concerned with conveying an elegaic mood than telling a story. Porterfield largely keeps grief and other emotions understated to the point of being completely invisible.
The fatal misstep, I think, is his decision to ask the characters questions from off camera, documentary style, so characters look directly into the camera to answer. The non-actors, who basically play themselves, invent memories of the fictional Cory, but otherwise answer Porterfield’s questions honestly.
It’s an interesting experiment to mingle documentary and narrative, but the upshot is to keep the viewer at arm’s length from the film. None of the characters makes much of an impression on us, either positive or negative, and Porterfield’s straightforward, unadorned shooting style never invites us to sink in to their world.
I think Porterfield wanted to make an honest movie about this world, neither romanticized like David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” or exploited like Larry Clark’s “Kids.” But you’ve got to do something with it, and “Putty Hill” is just too low-key and nonjudgmental to really stick.