I Used to Be Darker is a movie of small pleasures, lots of them.
By Gerald Peary
I have no clue why the Baltimore-based director, Matthew Porterfield, called his new independent feature, I Used to Be Darker. For a start, who the heck is the titular “I”? Is it the film’s protagonist, Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a college-age girl from Northern Ireland? Was there a “darkness” back home which leads Taryn to skip out on her family, telling them she’s off to Wales but instead getting a job at a beach resort in the USA? There are many enigmas in this barely plotted feature. However, this delicate, compassionate film creeps up on you, has an emotional impact, without much story being spelled out to the audience. It unfolds the austere European way, without the heavy baggage of backstory. For example: a married couple is splitting, and nobody tells you what caused it. And that’s okay.
Here’s what you get for narrative: Estranged from her new American boyfriend, and secretly pregnant, Taryn lands in Baltimore, where her mom’s sister, Kim (Kim Taylor) lives with her husband, Bill (Ned Oldham), and their daughter, Abby (Hannah Gross), who is Taryn’s age. It turns out to be an inopportune time for a visit. Kim is moving out on Bill, taking her own apartment. She might have a new boyfriend. Taryn moves in with Bill for a while, then she moves in with Kim.
That’s it. For ninety minutes, these characters circle each other, trying to get by each day with real sadness in the air. There’s a blown marriage of two people who, to our eyes, seem so matched — even to their both being guitar-strumming folk-rock musicians. There’s young Taryn, leggy, sexy, a seemingly self-possessed young woman, who is actually a big child. A big child with child, scared to call her own mother back in Ireland. And there’s Abby, in the middle of her parents’ hurtful separation, who holds it all together until it spills out. Trying to make waffles in her dad’s house, she finds she can’t, because her mom, in splitting, has taken the waffle iron. Abby explodes! The waffle iron breaks the camel’s back.
I would have predicted that several of the above would get together sexually. Porterfield defies expectations. Taryn does finally ends smooching with someone, but it’s so random and anti-climactic, and her motivation is so mysterious. All to the good.
I liked his use of amateur actors, I felt for all Porterfield’s characters. I cared about their aches. In between the scenes of quiet pain, and loneliness, there is plenty of music, from wistful love songs sung by actor-performers Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham to a rowdy night of retro-punk at an apartment party. I Used to Be Darker, whatever that means, is a movie of small pleasures, lots of them.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.