"Putty Hill" transcends the usual docudrama hybrid to occupy a thrilling third place, dreamlike and scruffy, opaque and pellucid. It also occupies a very particular geographic location, the outskirts of Baltimore, with their verdant overgrowth and suburban disarray.
It's the place where director Matt Porterfield grew up, and his intimacy with the setting and artist's inquisitiveness about it infuse every frame of the film. Whether in the woods or at a tattoo party, some of cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier's compositions recall Gus Van Sant's "Last Days" in their formal rigor and emotional potency.
As friends and relatives gather for a funeral, little happens in the conventional sense of plot, but whole stories transpire through gestures, glances, silences. In vignettes and in conversations with an off-screen interviewer, they talk about Cory, who died of an overdose, and about themselves.
Answering Porterfield's questions, the ensemble of mostly nonprofessionals — only up-and-coming singer Sky Ferreira gets star billing — blend autobiography and fiction.
What emerges is composite portrait as elegy, devoid of the kind of grieving-with-a-capital-G big moments that often define fictional studies of loss. The film captures the particular listlessness of youth in summer, the passed pipes and lazy swims in the gorge or the backyard pool. The adolescent posturing is equal parts toughness and vulnerability.
Cory's sister (Zoe Vance) is unsurprised by his death but still searches for clues to his last days. On a red wall at a skate park, an acquaintance of Cory's creates a memorial tag, stylized hieroglyphics straight from the spray can.