Documentaries are rarely fly-on-the-wall affairs, instead employing framing, editing, reconstruction, and even scripts to tackle their subjects. Here we have a fictional film that, like The Florida Project (2017), is based on the lived experiences of an actual community; unlike that film, though, Putty Hill (2010) also employs the documentary method of the interview with the filmmaker, here writer-director Matthew Porterfield.
Hailing from the same working-class community in Baltimore where the film is set and was mostly shot, Porterfield can do what Barry Jenkins did for Moonlight (2016) and locate those touches of authenticity. Moreover, Putty Hill is almost entirely improvised: The characters were given the backstory of the fictional Cory (Rafael Postel), who died young from a drug overdose, and in the interview sequences wove him into their actual life stories.
Each sequence of the film focuses on a member of the community in their inhabited location (home, pool, skate park), with the interview as the magically unobtrusive centerpiece. Though the characters introduce themselves and describe their relation to Cory, the details grow fuzzy in the mind (note the factual inaccuracies in Roger Ebert’s review) as the characters multiply, until what’s left is what Porterfield wanted all along: a portrait of the community. Few scenes in the film are narrative per se, because the core narrative is the rounding out of this portrait.
The one scene that doesn’t really fit is by design. Jenny (Sky Ferreira, who gets a brief chance to sing) has come in from LA for the funeral and is staying with her estranged father. Something or other reminds her of his long absence from her life, and she sob-yells at him. The scene is well done, and Ferreira goes deep, but it’s the only marked expression of powerful emotion in the film. This seems to be saying something about a community as an emotional safe haven.
Finally, the ending sequence is a marvel. Cory’s older sister Zoe (Zoe Vance) and her best friend Casey (Casey Weibust) are driving back from a late-night visit to the run-down house Cory squatted in. They discuss nothing in particular as the camera shoots out-of-focus freeway car lights coming and going, an image used in other films like Locke (2013) and August at Akiko’s (2018); but here it’s used most meaningfully, with these brief and wandering lights evoking the brief and aimless life of Cory and others in the community in similar tough spots.