Home Video Hovel: I Used to Be Darker, by Aaron Pinkston
Matthew Porterfield’s previous film, Putty Hill, is an odd, nearly home movie, exploring the lives of a group of young people after being effected by a tragic event. That film, though, keeps character and narrative as basic as possible, focusing more on the atmosphere of an unexplored Baltimore. I Used to Be Darker is a similarly gloomy and beautiful look into broken people, but with a fuller sense of plot and narrative. It’s a big step forward for Porterfield and a small film worth seeking out.
The film opens with a young girl from Northern Ireland working in a small boardwalk town in Maryland. After a falling out, she reaches out to stay with her mother’s sister, a musician in Baltimore. Taryn’s timing couldn’t be worse, as her aunt and uncle are going through a nasty separation while her same-aged cousin becomes emotionally turbulent. They are forced to forge a new relationship while their relationships with each other are rapidly breaking apart. In this dynamic, the film is able to fully explore both sides of human relationships within a scene. Newcomer Deragh Campbell doesn’t do anything flashy in the role of Taryn, but she plays well against the difficult situations around her. As you learn more about her own situation and the reasons she is away from her home country, the character grows more complex and brittle. It’s not a long or complicated narrative, so its a nice feat to see her transform so much by the end.
Porterfield shows off his interest in atmospheres more subtly than previous work, but does so well. Simple spaces are seen most dynamically through quiet long-takes with hand-held cinematography. Because of the emotional states of characters inhabiting these spaces, the film’s camera has an appropriate drift to it. We see these techniques mostly in the opening sequences of the film, while Taryn is exploring her new environment.
Having the main characters be musicians gives the film a few narrative advantages. A few whole performance sequences allow the film to provide an emotional context without exposition or on-the-nose dialogue. There is a particularly effective scene near the middle of the film, where Taryn’s uncle (played by independent artist Ned Oldham) plays a complete song, uninterrupted by editing or camera movement. The song isn’t recognized, but it has historical weight to it and feels important to this character and the separation he is handling. It’s simple and standalone but within the context of the film, it fits incredibly well. Throughout the film, music is able to fill in the gaps of a narrative that is mostly nonverbal. It’s also a way to showcase some very talented musicians, and it’s a worthy excuse.
I Used to Be Darker is nicely able to mix understated, but heavy emotions and musical setpieces to tell a story about people coming together and coming apart. Furthermore, it’s a mostly narrative film told by a filmmaker adept at telling stories without narrative — this gives the film a nice balance of emotional and narrative substance.