What happens when the sound track to life changes to a minor key? It’s the kind of question posed to anyone who sits down to watch Matt Porterfield’s latest film, I Used To Be Darker.
When Irish teenager Taryn (Deragh Campbell) comes to America to escape her discontented life back home, she is quickly thrown back off the tracks as she is faced with another problem she can’t just ignore. Already out on a limb, Taryn seeks out her American relatives living in Baltimore. But matters are only made worse when she comes to find that her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and Uncle Bill (Ned Oldham) are in the process of separating, and her cousin Abby (Hannah Gross) is just as disgruntled about it as her parents.
It’s just the kind of script you would expect from a director like Porterfield, whose stories often land in the grey area between mainstream and avant-garde.
“We were trying to set up a scenario in which there were four characters in opposition, each of whom are going through their own personal crisis,” Porterfield explains. “The characters aren’t always operating from a point of free will. I feel that this makes the film more true to life.”
The film does an exceptional job portraying the darker points in life when someone is forced to choose between themselves and the people or things that they love. Much of the story is gleaned from the personal experiences of Matt Porterfield and co-writer Amy Belk, both of who have felt the emotional spectrum that comes with going through a divorce first hand. “In this case, since I share a voice with Amy, we were all thinking about each other and trying to honor each other’s experiences.”
In the same way an illustrator uses negative space to create more dynamism in their artwork, Porterfield has a way of keeping most of the scenes in the film relatively quiet. As a result, the moments that do become loud and animated are that much more impactful. This effect was best utilized in the parts of the film in which the characters played and sang songs, live. In doing so, the songs became something more than what you would normally expect from a live musical performance in a film.
They felt completely natural.
The respect given to the music of the film is apparent. Instead of scenes with countless cuts like in a music video, Porterfield chose to let many moments in the film play out in long, simple, single shots. This gave the sense that you were in the room with the actors, feeling what they are feeling almost to the point of thinking that, if you were to suddenly cough, the actors on the screen might startle.
I Used To Be Darker is definitely the most universally relatable of Porterfield’s films to date. There is nothing glamorous or shocking about the events that unfold throughout. Everything that happens to the characters either has happened or can happen to anyone who chooses to watch it. That, I think, is what makes it an exceptional film though. It affords the viewer the luxury of seeing an element of the human condition that, when being experienced, feels like chaos, but when watched, reads like poetry.