In the slim but affecting family drama I Used To Be Darker, the end of a marriage is depicted through the eyes not of the splitting spouses, but of a distant relative who suddenly appears at the doorstop of their broken home. Fleeing her job and boyfriend in Ocean City, Maryland, a Northern Irish runaway (unknown American actress Deragh Campbell, adopting a lilting brogue) drops in unexpectedly on her aunt (Kim Taylor) and uncle (Ned Oldham, brother of Will), both musicians. What she doesn’t know, but quickly discovers, is that the two are in the middle of a messy separation—a development that has sent shock waves of resentment through their Baltimore home, some of them absorbed by their daughter (Hannah Gross), back from her first year of college. There’s not much more to the movie’s bare-bones plot, save for a secret badly kept by Campbell. Yet what this tender indie lacks in incident, it makes up for with a wealth of sentiment. While divorce dramas tend to run on the bitter bons mot exchanged between their warring lovers, here’s one in which the pregnant silences speak as loudly as the toxic words.
I Used To Be Darker is the third feature from Baltimore native Matthew Porterfield, and it feels at once more conventional and more personal than his improvised Hamilton and Putty Hill. Though working for the first time with an actual screenplay (co-authored by Amy Belk), Porterfield retains the loose, ramshackle spirit of those earlier efforts—a sense that his characters are simply being observed in their natural environment instead of inserted into a structured narrative. (That environment, as always, is Baltimore, though the filmmaker has shifted his focus to the city’s vibrant music scene.) Darker feels not just culturally but also dramatically specific: Porterfield, whose parents divorced when he was about the same age as Gross, understands the way that hurt feelings volley among members of a fractured family. Campbell, the outsider, ends up operating like a kind of emotional go-between. In a cruel tantrum, Gross misdirects the anger she feels toward her mother, lashing out instead at her visiting cousin, while Taylor lavishes maternal affection—mostly genuine, but also transferred—on Campbell.
Drenched in the evening glow of its urban and suburban backdrops, Darker comes alive in the dark, when its characters are drowning their sorrows in song, the sauce, or conversation. In place of plot developments, there are activities: paging through an old photo album, trying on an old prom dress, taking things too far in an abandoned train car on a night that never seems to end. The atmosphere, thick and enveloping, is one of great regret. When not wounding each other during slightly overwritten spats, Taylor and Oldham sink into a melancholy so deep it can’t quite be articulated in words. That, apparently, is what music is for: Porterfield grants his two real-life songwriters solo acoustic laments, performed in single, unbroken takes for the benefit of no one but themselves and the empty rooms they flood with feeling. As in the great karaoke scene in Putty Hill, the catharsis is tremendous, maybe cleansing. For Porterfield, it carries the promise of even better things to come.