SIFF 2013 Face The Music Preview: I Used To Be Darker

I Used To Be Darker
(Directed by Matthew Porterfield; USA, 2013, 90 minutes)

Festival Screenings:
Tuesday, June 4 at 6:30 PM, at SIFF Cinema Uptown
Wednesday, June 5 at 3:30 PM at SIFF Cinema Uptown

Rarely has a movie shown how much (performing and enjoying) music enriches and inspires, heals and separates our personal lives as much as in SIFF Face The Music entry I Used To Be Darker. This family drama, directed by Matthew Porterfield (who made Hamilton in 2006 and Putty Hill in 2011, and has studied at NYU and John Hopkins), is both indie aesthetically and about relationships in indie music.  Focusing on a dissolving marriage between working class songwriters, the film balances scenes of love collapsing with those of self-conciliation through songcraft. The couple is played by Cincinnati, Ohio’s Kim Taylor, a long-time touring partner with Over The Rhine – whose rustic, remarkable, broken ballads are the heart of the film – and Ned Oldham, whose mournful laments are also quietly mesmerizing, reflecting his etiolated spirit in losing Kim’s character. Ned happens to be brother Will Oldham (Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy), and this heading-to-divorce drama seems like the kind of household where a lot of Palace Brothers music was once played. (In fact, Palace is represented by a poster on a wall in one scene.)

But that all occurs actually about a third of the way into the film, as the movie centers around the flight of Taryn (Deragh Campbell) from Ireland to Baltimore to come stay with her “Aunt Kim and Uncle Bill,” and her relationship with cousin Abby (Hannah Gross), in the middle of the damage. On the way to her kin in Maryland, Taryn runs across a boy and ends up pregnant; she assumed there would be safe haven with mom’s sister and her husband in the big city. But her uncle and aunt were once band-mates, and he is now mostly concerned with “paying the bills” and there is a young fellow musician that has caught her eye and led her out of the home. Abby’s sarcastic, angry responses to the marriage falling apart actually gives the movie moments of humor, however dark. As we go through watching as a young woman tries to find emotional harbor in a sea of turmoil, the film itself renders us vulnerable and only soothed when Kim or Ned/Bill decide to play their threnodies. Music is everywhere, thankfully; when Abby or Taryn walk into the room of one or the other of the adults, they’re either writing a song, playing one out with mates, or fading into an LP (of many collected) on the stereo. It would be hard for music makers/addicts not to identify with these scenes.

The movie features really raw emotional experiences and desperate love beneath a blurry gauze of everyday mundanities; this helps the dramatic scenes shock even if there isn’t much narrative tension. Some people left the theater at the screening I attended, maybe thinking more should be happening, or something. It’s pretty slowcore. Fans of Lynn Shelton would probably find a lot here to admire and respect, and perhaps even enjoy. I could have used more humor (and personalities like a relative back in Ireland who sharply scolds Taryn for escaping to the States over Skype), and even more of the excellent music. Ah yes, always back to the music.

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