A ambitious film about the every day stories we overhear is stronger in concept than execution.
From the outside, Emma’s (Laura Barrett) life is on the up and up: as a mild-tempered but curious 30-something, she’s long since given up the unstable life of a touring musician for the security of a full-time job and an impending marriage. But when former band mate Gabriel (Jose Miguel Contreras) comes by for an unexpected visit, it’s hard for Emma to deny what she knows to be true: she’s still an artist at heart. Seeing Gabriel immediately awakens something in her, and it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore their chemistry, even as fiancé Stefan (Alex Tindal) is upstairs packing for the couple’s move to their new apartment.
It’s clear that Emma and Gabriel aren’t the only artists. Director Sarah Goodman’s feature debut, shot entirely in black and white, has something of a dreamlike quality. A lot of the film is shot with a shallow depth of field, which seems to draw a macro lens on the intimate stories on display here—not just Emma’s, but also a neighbor experiencing her first love, and an elderly couple across the street confronting a half-hearted romance left to spoil. Even the film’s soundtrack is self-contained, with the two leads (who also happen to be real-life musicians) composing and performing most of the film’s music. The quirky indie tunes seem like something Emma, a slim-figured, mousey girl with clear, hipster glasses, would indeed sing.
The only complaint is that the music might fit the character more than the narrative itself—a close heart-to-heart between Emma and Stefan, where she admits she once dated Gabriel (who has now taken a room in their home for the night), has all the intensity of a lullaby sung to a child right before bedtime (read: none at all). It points to a larger problem of the art direction sometimes getting in the way of the narrative. The whole film has a bit of a stilted quality to it; while we get to go inside Emma’s house, the B and C plots surrounding the teenage couple and elderly couple are shot on each neighbor’s respective porch. It feels stiff, like watching a one-act play, and the lines are delivered with that same sense of restriction.
Laura Barrett’s Emma is the only character that really feels lively here. There is some humor to Goodman’s script (the teenage girl across the street has fallen in love with a Settlers of Catan-obsessed man, who’s decided to literally dress the part with armor), but Barrett alone seems capable of adding the touch of quirkiness to her character with any real humanity. Stefan feels a bit like the jealous alpha-male boyfriend archetype, whereas Gabriel never omits a line with any emotion above that of a stoner. He’s fine in the more romantic scenes though, and especially believable as an introspective singer-songwriter when he sings an acoustic Elliott Smith-type number for Emma on her porch. This easy-going but slightly regretful tone is what most of the movie carries, which is fine when a person is thinking about events much later on in life, but in the moment, it’d be nice to feel like these characters are as engaged with their lives as their art would seem to imply. Everyone feels a bit sleepy and hollow.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of artistic choices needing to really make an impact, and not just existing for the sake of it. According to director Sarah Goodman, the film was inspired by her experiences in her own neighborhood, overhearing little stories here and there. It’s an interesting concept about the way humanity is intertwined, but in actual execution, the tertiary stories are too superficial to feel invested in, and the primary story is lost a bit in the fact that, on film, neither of the lead men have much chemistry with Emma. It’s a beautifully shot 72 minutes of film, with some big picture themes—the three stories can kind of be seen as the circle of life (falling in love, the ebbs of relationships, and the loss of love)—but a stronger central story would have made for a longer lasting impression. Instead, the stories feel as fleeting as the ones we overhear on the street without ever quite digesting them.
Porch Stories opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, June 19th in Toronto.