When there’s not much on at the mainstream cinemas, you can always rely on the ICA for something a little bit different. Casting its eye over the friends and family of Cory, a recently deceased drug-addict, this American indie flick sits strangely and quietly in the uncertain space between documentary and fiction. It’s popular territory, recently occupied by the likes of The Arbor, Catfish and The Only Way Is Essex (so I’ve heard) – but Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill does it subtly and distinctively enough to merit your attention, and leave itself milling around in your mind long after the closing credits have rolled.
The documentarian/questioner figure here is a ghostly one – unexplained, always off screen, perhaps invisible and eventually disappearing altogether. He begins the film asking simple, unthreatening questions (‘How old are you?’; ‘Where do you live?’; ‘How do you know Cory?’), serving in a dual capacity as audience exposition aid and invisible friend to those on screen. So, by association, we also empathise with the various characters presented: the underprivileged of Baltimore, variously vulnerable, hopeful, discontented and defiant.
For quite a while there’s nothing much by way of narrative to link these vox-pops; the film is well-made but arguably only sporadically interesting and fairly aimless. But then, just in time, our questioner friend adopts a more probing approach and something different begins to emerge. Asked ‘When was the last time you cried?’, one of Cory’s teenage cousins delivers a heartbreaking story about her father calling her on her mobile – the first contact between the two for four years – only to admit he’d accidentally dialled the wrong number, and hang up.
Suddenly, we’re immersed in her world and the questions give way to conventional drama. It transpires the father in question is a tattoo artist from earlier in the film, with whom she’s staying in order to attend the funeral. We watch her screaming at him incoherently on his apartment’s balcony, the intimacy of the exchange and the camera’s position (mid-air? next door’s balcony?) taking the film further into fiction. Then, the next day, we watch the various characters reconvene at the wake – a fascinating sequence whose highlights include an old man’s jolty dancing and a terrible rendition of Whitney Houston’s ‘I Will Always Love You’.
In a further step away from the ‘real’, the last two scenes verge on the impressionistic. Firstly, for reasons unclear, two girls visit Cory’s house in the dead of night; the shots are so dark that it might as well be an audio file alone. Then, their car journey back is filmed with such soft focus that we simply see large, coloured circles drifting across the screen. Their mumbling is replaced by cello music, and the credits start to appear. It’s beautiful – perhaps the film’s highlight – and an appropriately poetic way to end this intriguing, flighty slice of Americana.