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(The Maryland Film Festival ran May 2-6 in, you guessed it, Maryland. We have a slew of reviews coming your way so keep your dial tuned to HtN!)

From Baltimore native Matthew Porterfield (I Used to Be Darker) comes his fourth feature, Sollers Point , set – as were the other three – in his hometown (which is also mine*). A hard-hitting examination of angry male self-destructiveness, and the lonely dead end to which it leads, the film takes no narrative prisoners, leaving us without a soothing catharsis. There can be no happy end when one refuses to change, and it is to the director’s credit that he embraces this bleak aesthetic with a vengeance. If you like your cinema with a bite, chew on this.

Lead actor McCaul Lombardi (American Honey) – another local – delivers a searing performance as Keith, a twentysomething overgrown boy recently out of prison, who when we first meet him is still saddled with an ankle bracelet, under house arrest. His crime is never directly specified, though it’s most likely drug-related, based on subsequent revelations. He lives with his father (a very fine Jim Belushi, Katie Says Goodbye) in a very uneven equilibrium, all the while pining for his ex-girlfriend (Zazie Beetz, about to make a big splash in Deadpool 2) and their dog (or “his” dog, as he sees it). Though Keith seems to mean well, trouble starts, albeit slowly, as soon as that bracelet comes off.

It’s not long before old habits resurface, with old acquaintances not far off. There’s a rage that simmers just below Keith’s outwardly calm demeanor, its origins never quite clear. Maybe it’s the dead mother, or the lost opportunities that make his life seem pointless before it’s really started; maybe he’s just angry. We see, in Belushi’s performance, a ghost of that anger, as if amplified in Keith through the natural vigor of youth, or diminished in the father through the passage of time.

Time, that great cinematic building block, is of the aesthetic essence here. Porterfield and editor Marc Vives (Little Boxes) employ gentle jumps forward that quickly push the story months ahead, the resulting ellipses keeping us focused on what is essential in Keith’s journey. Working with another essential collaborator – his cinematographer, Shabier Kirchner (We’ve Forgotten More Than We Ever Knew) – Porterfield also forces our gaze, time and again, on the protagonist’s face, framed in long-take medium close-ups. We can’t look away, and don’t want to, since Lombardi’s expressive countenance earns our sympathy, even as Keith degrades himself and others. I stayed friendly until near the end, at which point, I – like everyone else in the film – gave up on the man.

And that’s the real joy of the movie: how far can the protagonist push us before we push back? We all know people like Keith, committed to their self-pity and resentments, (mostly) indifferent to the needs of others. But there is also a kernel of hope in him, or we might not care so much, and Porterfield leaves us with a sense that the next chapter, were it told, might not be quite so desolate. For now, we have this delightfully bitter tonic to swallow, and how sharply it goes down.

*In the interest of full disclosure, I know Porterfield, casually, as the film world here is small (we call our town “Smalltimore”).

(Sollers Point is in theaters now via Oscilloscope Films)

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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