SXSW Review: South Mountain

Rating: 4/4

“How it feels when you lose a dream, and how it feels when you dream alone.”

When Jim Croce wrote those lines, he was probably thinking about marriage. When you’ve committed your life to someone, and they leave you or they perform the ultimate betrayal, it’s nearly impossible to completely divorce oneself from them — to lose a dream. Sure, there are films where two people split after a long marriage and share nothing with one another again. But life isn’t so simple. It doesn’t rest on an off-beat. That’s where South Mountain comes in (premiering at SXSW 2019). Like the soft whisper of a Keats poem, director Hilary Brougher‘s quiet ode to faded love is a light touch to the heaviest of injuries.

The films opens with a family: a mother Lila (Talia Balsam) and a father Edgar (Scott Cohen), and their two daughters Sam (Macaulee Cassaday) and Dara (Naian González Norvind). Sam is soon to be departed on a sailing trip around the world, while Dara is off to camp with her best friend Charlotte (Violet Rea). Lila begins the film worriedly wondering about Sam’s whereabouts, as she’s remained at the falls for an exorbitant amount of time (Lila’s been tracking her phone).

Brougher’s film unfolds slowly and mysteriously, and it’s not clear who the film is about or where the drama lies. If we go by the first shot, Dara and Charlotte playing together, then we’d assume this is a coming of age film. If we believe Sam to be in danger, then South Mountain becomes a thriller. Brougher creates these micro diversions, moments of micro dramas that aren’t diversions at all, but the unlikely course of life. And when we do ultimately arrive, very early in the film, to the revelation that — unbeknownst to Lila — Edgar is having a baby with another woman, the family drama takes on textures of growth, regression, and transformation with an intimate and patient eye.

South Mountain’s quiet, yet powerful ensemble nurtures a naturalistic milieu. There are few cathartic or over the top moments from any of the actors. Instead, like the screenplay, they approach these characters with the warmness and subtly of a vine caressingly wrapping around a tree, interweaving with emotional grace. When Edgar brings the baby over, Sam (Macaulee Cassaday) doesn’t walk away from him. She holds her new brother, even though she hates her father in that moment. She can be both angry and touched at the same time, Brougher’s film relies on that compartmentalistic quality.

But it’s the journey taken by Lila, and the incredible acting by Talia Balsam, that propels this film forward. Lila is a frazzled sensual mess in a midlife crisis, on the losing side of loving someone more than they loved her. Disturbingly, she’s been here before. Previously, threatening to kill herself if Edgar didn’t come back. Brougher’s screenplay intricately plays on that fact, suspending us in many moments where we assume the worst — especially during the many visits Edgar makes from his new life in Brooklyn. Balsam and Brougher also add strata to this character, such as the infatuation shown by Sam’s friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer) toward Lila, or Lila’s displays of bitterness when she hurls barbs at her cancer-stricken best friend (Andrus Nichols), or the visual motif of Lila’s once prized garden rotting away through the long summer (wonderfully shot by Brougher’s husband, cinematographer Ethan Mass).

Brougher’s film is simple and personal, yet complicated and elegant in all the best ways — somewhat like love. And as every character combats the new headwinds that have entered their lives because of, well, life, they each discover a way to cope. Because life is coping, coping to the next day. Like seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness, if one waits, a better day may yet come. And in Brougher’s beautiful and quiet South Mountain, we descend believing that better days are just over the next ridge.

An official selection of SXSW 2019


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