Matt Porterfield’s 2006 debut feature, Hamilton, was a muted, elliptical slice of life, and his 2010 follow-up, Putty Hill, was an energetic mix of improvisational interludes and scripted narrative. But his new I Used To Be Darker is the closest he’s come to a plain indie drama, and there’s some discordance between the film’s overheated dysfunctional-family clichés and Porterfield’s relaxed, watchful approach. Amy Belk’s screenplay—written with Porterfield—is dotted with well-observed, well-written scenes, detailing the dissolution of a marriage from the perspective of the divorcees’ college-age daughter and her visiting Irish cousin. But there’s also way too much contrived confrontation, like something out of a primetime soap. And while there’s nothing inherently wrong with those kinds of moments, Porterfield’s mostly amateur cast doesn’t handle them well, and his propensity for long takes doesn’t help. A certain level of professional pretense and cinematic expressiveness is vital to a movie like this, and Porterfield—to his credit, previously—is more engaged by unmitigated reality.
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.
The circumstances of I Used To Be Darker feel true, and will likely feel even truer to anyone who’s ever been through a divorce, as a parent or a child. Belk and Porterfield get across the way Kim and Bill can only communicate through passive-aggressive accusations, and Abby’s annoyance at having her home’s furnishings and appliances split between two households, and the cold comfort of listening to music alone that used to be shared. (The music in this film is good, too, much of it performed live by Oldham and Taylor, who are singer-songwriters in real life.) As was evident with Hamilton and Putty Hill, Porterfield has a feel for the textures of the everyday, and the best moments in I Used To Be Darker are the subtlest, such as when Uncle Bill tries to impress Taryn on her first night in town by taking her to a steakhouse—he in a tie, she still in beachwear—or when Bill watches his soon-to-be-ex-wife’s band come over to retrieve the last few amps and cords that were still in the basement, effectively stripping his home of her last vestiges.
Even in that basement scene, though, Porterfield’s style lets him down. In his earlier, more documentary-like films, his long takes held the possibility of surprise. In this scene (and elsewhere in I Used To Be Darker), they’re more about completing the action necessary to the story. So Porterfield holds the shot in the basement until the people moving the amps out have cleared the frame, not unlike the way B-movie directors of decades past would pad out their films’ run times by showing the characters parking their cars and walking down hallways. That surely isn’t Porterfield’s intention. But that’s the byproduct of a movie where the characters often talk and behave like they’re in a movie, with Abby exaggeratedly spurning her mother’s warmth, and Bill storming into Kim’s new house to ask about her new boyfriend, and Taryn flirting with that boyfriend like some kind of femme fatale. I Used To Be Darker has the look and shape of a Porterfield film, right down to its “life goes on” non-ending. But where before, Porterfield seemed to be recording life as it’s lived, here, he’s mostly recording plot. The difference is glaring.