Ostensibly, I Used to Be Darker is a film about Taryn (Deragh Campbell), an Irish teenage runaway who seeks shelter with her American relatives in Baltimore when her life seems to be falling apart. And that’s how the film appears from the get go, as we watch, from long shot and extreme long shot, as she extricates herself from the beach party lifestyle that has chewed her up and spit her out. But as Taryn arrives at her uncle’s (and formerly her aunt’s) house, it becomes apparent that hers is not the story in question. She is a lens and a catalyst for I Used to Be Darker’s catalog of the escalating and deescalating interactions between Uncle Bill (Ned Oldham) and Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor), whose relationship with each other is collapsing along with their marriage. Their bourgeois suburban Baltimore house, replete with a basement recording studio and a private pool, becomes the setting for the repeated and varied interactions between Bill and Kim that paint a portrait of a family collapsing under its own weight. Bill and Kim are both musicians, though Bill has taken a day job running a cement company to pay for their lifestyle and their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). The way their musical lives intersect with their personal crises is almost as compelling as the songs themselves. The soundtrack--diegetically accounted for or not--is composed and performed by Oldham and Taylor, both professional musicians and non-actors here in the real world.
Walker Art Center
Director: Matt Porterfield
Producers: Eric Bannat, Steve Holmgren, Ryan Zacarias
Writers: Amy Belk; Matthew Porterfield
Cinematographer: Jeremy Saulnier
Editor: Marc Vives
Music: Ned Oldham, Kim Taylor
Cast: Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross, Ned Oldham, Kim Taylor, Nicolas Petr, Geoff Grace
Runtime: 90 min
Premiere: January 19, 2013 - Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: September 27, 2013
US Distributor: Strand Releasing
Porterfield’s direction is low-key and unobtrusive. These characters are shown through cohesive vacuum-packed scenes, long takes or combinations of long takes that linger just long enough to make a satisfying individual morsel of narrative and character. Porterfield has a gift for knowing just how long to spend in each moment, and exactly which moments are worth piecing together. Just like Taryn does, we walk into Bill and Kim’s separation in media res--we watch scenes unfold and develop our understanding of the dynamics and their relationship right along with her. By the time their daughter and Taryn’s cousin, Abby, walks into the story we already have a picture of what is happening.
And this is what is perhaps the weakest part of the film. Abby’s character, a post-college aspiring actor who bounces back and forth between New York City and her parents in Baltimore, feels like a character that belongs more to the world of HBO’s Girls than this one of complex family interactions. When she brings Taryn into the back yard with the line, “Welcome to my own personal hell,” she demonstrates not only her childish response to her parents’ divorce but her clichéd teenage reaction by choosing sides between her parents. Perhaps this character is meant to be obnoxious and immature, but she seems closer to 13 than 23 as she yells at her mother on the phone for taking the waffle iron out of the suburban house she grew up in. Still, even this minor blemish doesn’t take away from the complex characters that Porterfield and Belk’s screenplay constructs. And with a cast made of a blend of actors and non-actors (both Campbell and Gross have done some professional acting) the emotional depth and rawness is stunning. The film’s final meandering handheld closeup--on Kim singing a new song she wrote in her studio--is utterly heartbreaking.
And that gets to what is so remarkable about this film’s construction. It has completely eschewed the traditional rules of screenwriting in favor of those of the novel. Nothing really happens, no one really changes much, and there is little action, but the depth to which we get to know these characters is that much more real. By the film’s end--I won’t say climax since there really isn’t one--it feels like we know Bill and Kim, and Abby to some degree, as well as Taryn does. It’s that closeness to the characters that makes this film exceptional, and without it all of the confrontations and conversations would feel clichéd. I Used to Be Darker achieves an almost impossible goal: it makes us feel its twists and turns, ones that we’ve seen in movies a thousand times before, are new because they are happening to us.