A troubled young man reenters his community, living under house arrest after serving a year of prison time in the Baltimore-set indie drama “Sollers Point.” But as writer/director Matthew Porterfield’s tense, low-key movie carefully lays out, confinement is often as much a state of mind as a set of physically defined parameters.
Keith (McCaul Lombardi) is Porterfield’s protagonist, a well-toned, wiry, blue-eyed 26-year-old who bristles having to exist under the same roof as his taciturn, quietly judgmental dad Carol (Jim Belushi), a retired steelworker more attentive to his cats and car than his wayward son. Drawing in his notebook, listening to thrash metal on his bedroom stereo and going on ankle-bracelet-free runs around his working-class, mixed-race neighborhood help Keith clear his head. But even he accepts that the pressure to fix his life won’t ease off until he does something about it himself. The problem is, in a town showing no recovery from the shuttering of its steel mill, what are his options?
First with a borrowed pickup truck from a friendly neighbor, then with a used sedan handed over by his supportive older sister (Marin Ireland), Keith makes the rounds looking for work, friendly reconnection or redemption — as from his doting grandmother (Lynn Cohen) — and perhaps, when inquiring into trade workshops or perusing the art at the local college, the kind of osmosis-like encouragement that will keep him from going astray.
Keith’s decisions go from oops to yikes to whoa.
We soon grasp from the itinerant trajectory of “Sollers Point” that Keith’s life is a delicately stitched tapestry of good relationships and fast friendships that speak to his quicksilver charm, yet also strained ones — like with a fed-up ex (the commanding Zazie Beetz from “Atlanta”) he’s known since childhood — that suggest unfulfilled promise. But in an increasingly segregated world Keith has navigated well enough over the years, it also means that there are problematic alliances he’s desperate to avoid — namely the white supremacist gang whose protection he advantageously sought on the inside, and is now inconveniently reasserting itself into his post-lockup life — as well as familiar criminal ties he finds it recklessly easy to reestablish. Though it’s never made explicit what sent him away, the unspoken reason is drugs. No sooner does Keith realize how steep the road back will be as an ex-con fighting shame and unemployment in a depressed community before he’s dealing again from his unique position, the white-neighborhood conduit for black-owned product.
Keith’s decisions go from oops to yikes to whoa, including a flirtation with an art student (Maya Martinez) that segues into the rash buying of a gun. But throughout, Porterfield never pushes the sense that his world is closing in. That’s because “Sollers Point” boasts a cool, classically observational tone marked by Shabier Kirchner’s invitingly elegant cinematography that eschews the vogue for artificial shaky-cam edginess, and the naturalistic detail of a lived-in neighborhood populated by at least a dozen instantly memorable characters — by turns stressed, satisfied, curious, weird and sad — just doing their thing. It’s the same clear-eyed sympathy that marks Porterfield’s previous features about his Baltimore, including the textured gem “Putty Hill.” With “Sollers Point,” he’s added just enough narrative momentum to make that well-trod subset of crime sagas — the struggle to go straight — feel fresh again.
And at the center, Lombardi’s chiseled vulnerability holds the screen, even as our hopes for Keith dwindle with each passing minute. But he makes his every darting movement or aggressive posture count in painting the picture, each an acknowledgement that if he stays in one place, like a shark, he’ll die. The problem for Keith is, this mammal doesn’t see an ocean around him, just an all-too-familiar tank, only maybe smaller than before.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Rated: R, for pervasive language, drug content, and some sexual material
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica
For the record, May 25, 10:19 a.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled director of photography Shabier Kirchner’s first name as Sabier.