I've played some live music, and a quick scene in I Used to Be Darker makes me cringe in recognition. It's a forlorn load-out. Some musicians led by a singer named Kim (Kim Taylor) have finished a show, and after the club owner says how much he enjoyed the performance, he tells them that they need to vacate the dressing room right away. In the middle of the night, they load their van and drive home. It's another unglamorous event in the life of a gigging musician.
I Used to Be Darker understands this world, and that's one of the reasons I'm enthusiastic about this deceptively understated film, a family drama that is also, in its way, a sad musical. It was directed and co-written by Matthew Porterfield, who made the excellent Putty Hill (2010), about the aftermath of a young man's death.
Putty Hill is a mysterious film that unfolds elliptically. I Used to Be Darker is somewhat more conventional, but it likewise gets at its story sideways. We piece together details of the characters' lives, but only gradually. The focus is a young Northern Irish woman named Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who in the opening scenes is seen working a retail job in a beach town. She confronts a guy at a party, about what we're not sure. Then she flees to Baltimore, where her aunt, uncle and cousin live together in a grand old house.
Or used to. Just before she arrives, her Aunt Kim, the singer, packs up books and the waffle iron and moves out. Kim and her husband, Bill (Ned Oldham), are going through a nasty breakup. Both are musicians, and Bill seems to resent Kim because she has kept her music career going. Bill, meanwhile, works a job that apparently is lucrative enough to pay for this gorgeous house and swimming pool.
Bill and Kim have a daughter named Abby (Hannah Gross), who is about the same age as Taryn. Abby has taken Bill's side in the family dispute and resents her mother -- for, among other reasons, taking the waffle iron. At first the young cousins hang out and reminisce. Then they fight explosively, and Abby leaves.
I have recounted elements of the film's plot, but believe me when I say it is not plotty. Even at 90 minutes, it develops slowly. There are mysterious scenes, like one involving a touch football game that goes on for a curiously long time.
And there is much music -- original, mournful songs, performed live by these marvelous actors. The most moving song is by Bill, a middle-aged guy who apparently had an interesting entertainment career when he was younger. Now he plays guitar alone in his basement.