Thursday, 18 June 2015

PORCH STORIES - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Low-Budget Canadian Indies sans splatter, weird sex & (with apologies to Katherine Monk) snowshoes are a dime a dozen. Not so with Sarah Goodman's new picture. It's a rarity.

Porch Stories (2014)
Dir. Sarah Goodman
Starring: Laura Barrett, Jose Miguel Contreras, Brad Hart,
Hallie Switzer, Reid McMaster, Alex Tindal, Uerania Silveira, Sergio Sarmento

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Beginning in 2001 with Army of One, the extraordinary award winning portrait of young men joining the American Armed Forces, Sarah Goodman had settled quite nicely into a successful trajectory as an acclaimed director of documentaries. Like any gifted filmmaker, she's been able to bring her observational eye into the arena of feature drama. Her latest film, Porch Stories, accomplishes, in its own special way, what so many great filmmakers before her (John Boorman, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese to name but a very few) had done. Bringing the eye of a documentarian to drama has always yielded a veritable wealth of great cinema.

Of course, as is the case these days, there's virtually no money out there for independent filmmakers wanting to make movies that fall outside the purview of empty Hollywood roller coaster rides or sickeningly twee vomit-inducers about old people rediscovering themselves in sunny European climes or worse yet, fake machine-tooled "indie" movies rooted in either repetitive bromances and/or explorations of the horrific bourgeois concerns of 20-or-30-somethings set around fucking dinner tables.

Goodman, however, has delivered the goods with Porch Stories, and then some. Her steadfast commitment to making a movie about what she knows and cares about, but how she nails it, where so many (mostly Canadians) fail, is by blending her observational eye with a nice sense of both humour and a respect for elements which are purely and simply imbued with good, old fashioned entertainment value. In fact, this film pulsates with the kind of life that can only come from the careful, passionate observation of what's around you.

It tells the story of Emma (Laura Barrett), a young musician who has given up her dreams to settle into a comfortable domestic relationship with Stefan (Alex Tindal), a kind, hard (over) working young fella. They've bought a house together, plan to marry and are in the midst of moving away from the vibrant downtown Toronto neighbourhood of Little Portugal.

They appear to love each other, but there's also a strange disconnect. Emma is (rightly) obsessed with packing for their impending move. Stefan is so busy with his job, he's pretty much left the huge job to his wifelet-to-be. One mid-morning, whilst hubbles-to-be is off to work, blithely ignoring the fact that Emma is having to take time off work to accomplish what they both should be doing together, an unexpected visitor precipitates a whirlwind bout of soul searching: active soul-searching, mind-you, not the usual Canadian aesthetic trait of passivity.

Gabriel (José Miguel Contreras), a handsome, swarthy young feller wanders about Emma's neighbourhood with his sensitive, sexy eyes zeroing in upon various "For Rent" signs (one of which is mounted in the front yard of Emma and Stefan's place). Though one might say, "as luck would have it", there's no luck involved when he and Emma lock eyes. Given the nature of this community, their meeting is as natural as the hazy pollution which clouds the summer air of Toronto. They not only know each other, but were lovers and band mates many moons before Gabriel dropped everything and hightailed it to Bolivia to "find" himself and Emma abandoned her carefree, happy itinerancy as a musician to seek "normalcy".

However, with Gabriel almost magically appearing in her life again, the chief conflict of the film is spun handily into fast forward. Emma is faced with the crisis of conscience and desire she's been repressing. Perhaps she shouldn't have given up music. Perhaps she shouldn't be marrying and moving out of the hood. Maybe, just maybe, she can rekindle what was once so special in her life - personally, romantically and artistically.

What allows this story to breathe is the milieu, of course.

By choosing Little Portugal, something clearly rooted in her own experience, Goodman is blessed with a locale radiating the diversity of (now mostly) old, retired immigrants to Canada who left their homelands in the Azores decades earlier, recreating their previous milieus within Canada's welcoming official policy of multiculturalism. Into this "old" world are recent inner-city emigres, youthful Canadian-born men and women of all stripes who place their identities, not so much in ethnicity, but who they are and what they are, with respect to their youthful hopes, dreams and aspirations. In fact, many of these young'uns are students and/or all manner of artists, simply seeking decent places to live that won't break the bank when it comes to rent, and in so doing, creating a parallel community of their own to that of the Portuguese-Canadians.

In a sense, both worlds are like strangers in their own land; strangers who have separately found a very special place they can call their own.

Most of the houses have porches and most everybody, young and old, Canadian-born or not, use them as if they were appendages to their very being, sitting back, staring at neighbours across the street, communing with those living next-door in adjacent porches, playing music, listening to music, having barbecues, tending to potted plants or simply catching snippets of life itself as it literally passes by (on car, bike and foot).

Goodman's narrative captures bigger-scale events like a solemn Easter parade (representing the "old" world) to the myriad of tiny details of the "new" world: the comings, goings, whisperings and the gentle filtering in and out of these elements which create this neighbourhood.

The film's sense of place is sharp and thorough. I can personally attest to how Goodman captures the heart and soul of this actual district, as I lived in it for a few years myself. Watching her film is like being back in Little Portugal again and there are no false notes in her anthropological mise-en-scene,

She knows her world, knows what to capture and does it with belief and passion. She knows it and she cares about it and because of this, there are no false notes in the world she fashions and then, by extension, the characters and narrative she places within it.

By choosing to capture her story with a delicate monochrome, Goodman not only allows for a splendid evocation of time lost, time gained and time moving on, but aesthetically, the overwhelming quality of the gorgeous cinematography, is positively imperative in that it contributes to the "documentary" quality of the work. As well, the very nature of black and white cinematography has always been a "natural" way to render visual shades of grey as well as those rooted in story, character and life itself. (Bravely and sagely, the film builds to a brilliant use of ambiguity, one which is ultimately not all that ambiguous at all, but rather, working quite genuinely as a resolutely satisfying and moving summation of both the film and, frankly, all of our lives as we live them.)

There's also a practical advantage to black and white which filmmakers have recognized since the early days of technicolor. It magically allows them to address exigencies of production since monochrome allows for so much more flexibility in both hiding and accentuating elements of production which, in colour, would require a far more extensive commitment to time, energy, materials and cash outlay.

From a story standpoint, Goodman has wisely chosen a multi-character approach, allowing for other stories to merge with Emma's journey in a more holistic manner. Though there was a risk in overplaying the schematic hand of this approach - a young couple next door finding love, an old couple across the street discovering a deep-seeded divide, both of which contrast Emma's complicated situation involving her love for two resolutely different men - Goodman adheres to the principles of the very best multi-character dramas. The primary approach is to create a character whose very presence is integral to the world of the film - think Ronee Blakley's Norma Jean in Nashville or Mark Wahlberg's Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights - remove either one from the equation and you have no movie. The same holds true for Emma's character in Porch Stories. (I also suspect this is something which accentuated itself subtly in Goodman's approach to her coverage during shooting as well as eventually in the cutting room.)

One of the more canny elements utilized in creating a tiny indie movie, especially within the context of Canadian cinema which, is often far too twee and insular, is that Goodman has her cake and eats it too by creating a sense of scope to her story by the challenge of limiting it to a 24-hour period. Any one of the dilemmas, either on their own or together would seem far too slender within a story which spanned a much longer space of time. By creating a natural and very realistic parameter of a specific and short space of time is the very thing which infuses the work with the kind of urgency that indeed provides the kind of breadth which typifies the best movies - low budget indie or not.

Goodman's cast is a very special feather in the film's cap. On a very basic level, it's always driven me madly bunyip when Canadian filmmakers (in particular) seem to go out of their way to cast living, breathing equivalents to dishrags and rusty septic drums. You don't cast actors, no matter how damn good they are, if the camera doesn't love them. (On a base level, I'd typify it thusly: Ya gotta cast Babes and Hunks who can also act.) Canadians are more often than not, averse to the notion of babe/hunk casting; as if somehow it will impinge upon the movie's commitment to "realism". Nothing could be further from the truth - you want a blend of attractive leads and character actors with quirks in supporting roles.

Luckily, the film is dream casting for such a property. The two female leads are indeed babes and the men are hunks (one exotic, one manly-man and one super-sensitive-geeky). Both sides of the coin of the sexes offer nice contrasts in looks and temperament to boot. And, of course, the acting amongst the company of players is exquisite (including the camera-loved old couple across the street.) Add to this mix the genuine musical talents of some of these performers, naturally on display at various points and the reality quotient goes up a few notches further.

Try to see Porch Stories on a big screen. It might be a small slice of life, but its emotional largeness (and scope) also benefits from the aforementioned look of the film as well as its beautiful, brilliant soundscape. Most of all, such a sweet, funny, evocative and deeply romantic film deserves a big screen. You deserve it, too.


Porch Stories begins its platform release via Kinosmith and the TIFF Bell LightBox in Toronto.