Diggers takes place in one of those small towns, ubiquitous in earnest coming-of-age dramas, where an invisible but seemingly impregnable wall of responsibilities and commitments keeps sensitive young men from leaving until it's dramatically satisfying for them to do so. It's a quakingly sincere comedy-drama where every character seemingly represents its author's cousin Mickey or Aunt Judy or high-school buddy Brian. Either Diggers is a ferociously personal labor of love, or screenwriter-star Ken Marino dramatically overestimates the moviegoing public's appetite for low-budget, slice-of-life character studies about struggling working-class small-town New York fishermen in the mid-'70s.
Leading an ensemble cast of familiar faces wrestling with unfamiliar accents and unflattering facial hair, Paul Rudd stars as a sensitive fisherman/aspiring photographer whose aimless adolescence lasts well into his mid-30s. But when Rudd's stoic father dies on the job, he's forced to reexamine his life, especially in light of his relationship with Lauren Ambrose, a vacationing tease whose flighty big-city ways titillate and annoy him. Marino co-stars as a mercurial father and husband whose abundant personal and professional frustrations coalesce into a burning grudge against the corporate fishing entity gradually stripping away his livelihood and self-respect.
Diggers gets off to an unpromising start. Marino's script captures the familiar bickering rhythms between working-class people with little use for formality or false politeness, but without transforming them into art or entertainment. The film initially feels far too much like Ed Burns' many middling comedy-dramas about working-class guys trying to become working-class men. But it develops a cumulative power from uniformly fine performances, Marino's firm grasp of his milieu, and a soundtrack full of Big Star songs that go a long way toward establishing an appropriately autumnal, melancholy mood. And while the film coalesces all too neatly into a series of big dramatic moments for Marino and his high-profile pals, the cast carries off the heavy dramatic scenes with aplomb. As befits a heartfelt ode to working-class values, Diggers puts in lots of hard, honest work that finally pays off in a wholly predictable yet unexpectedly moving conclusion.