“Porterfield is clearly at peace with his material, photographing it softly and writing it humbly.”
When Taryn, (Deragh Campbell) a Northern Irish woman, runs away from an uncertain life, she seeks refugee with her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and uncle Bill (Ned Oldham) in their spacious home in Maryland. Kim and Bill, however, are trying to end their lengthy relationship, all while their daughter Abby (Hannah Rose) returns home from her freshman year of college.
I Used to Be Darker is set in the picturesque but relatively bland land of coastal Maryland where there’s a sense of listlessness and hopelessness defined by commonality. Because of this, the characters try to do things that will make their personal stories more significant and bring them a small, silver-line of optimism. Bill plays guitar, Kim also sings, Taryn runs away, as stated, and Abby just tries to stand out.
Writer/director Matthew Porterfield (and co-writer, Amy Belk) make the smart move of understating a lot of the plot-points and events in I Used to Be Darker, giving the story a quieter, more subtle presentation. This is one that doesn’t feel like every problem must be met with overwrought storytelling or mawkishness. Porterfield is clearly at peace with his material, photographing it softly and writing it humbly.
The problem lies with the fact that because the film doesn’t overstate its plot, it feels that the only other option is to, one, make the film in a very minimalist fashion and, two, offer metaphors that serve as the justification for limited storytelling. With this move, Porterfield doesn’t feel like he really wants to develop these characters and give their relationships something bigger and more naturalistic. He only seems to want them to exist as vessels, while nature and soft-spoken dialog take the forefront.
With that in mind, the film works nicely as a tone-poem; a soft musing on when life hands you what seems to be nothing but spoiled goods. The film depicts rough topics like divorce and adolescent aimlessness tenderly, simultaneously giving them life on film while not predicating the piece off of arguments and monologues that state exactly what is wrong and what should be done to remedy the issue. I Used to Be Darker offers no justifications for the characters’ behavior, which is as close to real-life as you can be.
Elevated by a great central performance by newcomer Deragh Campbell and some very wonderful, soothing music incorporated in the soundtrack, I Used to Be Darker is moody and welcoming in its brutal honesty, but slow and methodical in its execution. Impressionistic filmmaking really only works with heavy themes and a strong focus on those themes, and where the film should have a tight grip it seems to just have the strength to hold on.
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic