" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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Neorealism, Dogme 95, Mumblecore‚Ķ whatever you call that low-budget style, there are certain films that make you feel like you’ve just walked in. Often, you aren’t sure you’ll find any reason to stay for 90 minutes, but the best of them give you a deep connection to the characters.

I Used to be Darker is a prime example. For 20 minutes we spend time with characters without being properly introduced. Long, slow scenes play out with nothing important happening. A girl walks through her aunt and uncle’s house, she goes to a rock concert with her cousin. Minutes pass.

But at some point — probably when the film allows one of its musician characters to jam on-screen, while working through some strong emotions, I really got into the pace and the characters. I ended up caring a lot about their tense and unhappy lives.

Strained Relationships

Oldham gets time to jam on-screen
Oldham gets time to jam on-screen

The teenage girl is Taryn (Deragh Campbell), from Northern Ireland. She shows up unexpectedly at the house of her cousin Abby (Hannah Gross) in Baltimore. It’s not the best time for a visit; Abby’s parents are in the process of separating. Abby stays in the house with her father Bill (Ned Oldham). She’s very cold to her mother Kim (Kim Taylor), who initiated the breakup and is in the process of moving out.

Abby and Taryn go to a concert, have dinner with Uncle Bill, and go for a swim in the family pool. There’s a nice moment of cultural connection when Abby says Taryn is so lucky to have European citizenship; she can go anywhere. Taryn says “that’s such an American thing to say.” She thinks Abby has brains and opportunity, and that’s what will take her anywhere. Taryn thinks she herself is dumb and all her European friends lack ambition — they just want to get drunk.

The strain of the breakup and the unexpected visitor loom over every scene, and the various relationships begin to crack. Abby loses her temper with Taryn, then snaps at her mother over a waffle iron. She disappears for a day or more, leaving everyone else to wonder what’s next. Bill is a ball of resentment, especially since Kim is already dating someone from her band. And poor Taryn feels like she can’t go home — there’s a reason she showed up unannounced — yet nobody in Baltimore seems to want her, except for maybe a much-older man in Kim’s band.

The Pace of Life

Campbell and Oldham do most of the emotional heavy lifting as the adrift teenager and the abandoned husband. It’s too bad they can’t commiserate, but neither has the perspective to help the other. Taryn is Bill’s niece by marriage, not blood, so they aren’t even that close.

Every now and then the film includes a scene of Kim or Bill singing a song. These numbers are unpolished, but all the more moving for being spontaneous. Oldham in particular gives two chillingly lonesome performances in the basement studio where Kim once kept her equipment. That unpolished, spontaneous music reminded me a lot of the neorealist, Dogme, mumblecore film Once.

Maybe those long, slow scenes in the beginning set us up to be ready for scenes long enough to last the duration of a song. In any case, at some point I Used To Be Darker stops seeming slow and aimless and starts taking on the pace of real life.