Thursday, March 09, 2006

I'm not too sure about her.

The most brilliant thing about Bubble is the doll factory. The characters in Steven Soderbergh's most recent "small" film spend their days removing disembodied baby heads from a press, airbrushing their skin tone and plugging in plastic eyes. The images which bookend the film of lifeless eyes staring at us say more about the fusion of the real and the manufactured in everyday life than a thousand words can. The factory is also key to understanding the people who work there, particularly Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a character who strives for transcendence yet is bound by routine, a deadening sameness echoed in the piles of identical doll parts cluttered in corners of the frame.

Martha works at the factory with Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a soft-spoken young stoner who lives with his mother (Laurie Lee). Martha clearly adores the oblivious Kyle, but their quiet friendship is interrupted one day by the arrival of Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) a single mother who Kyle quickly falls for. Bubble is about these three characters, but it is also about the small Ohio town where they live, which is the sort of formless assembly of nondescript homes and prefabricated buildings that compose so much of America today. Soderbergh's film is shot on hi-def digital video, and the sharp yet fragmented quality of the format compliments the flat, yellowing texture of the locations wonderfully. In one scene, Martha accompanies Rose on a house-cleaning job; the house is one of those newly built, off-white numbers, yet Martha cannot stop raving about the beauty of it to Kyle. These characters exist in a world where a dream home need only be clean and spacious. Yet Soderbergh manages to avoid the classist condescension that damages the work of Alexander Payne; Bubble is clear-eyed, but never judgemental.

The leads are all non-actors (Doebereiner, for instance, manages a KFC), and Soderbergh elicits effective, authentic performances all around. Ashley has an understated sweetness that hints at pools of unexpressed emotion; Wilkins' sweet girl-next-door aura becomes truly grotesque as the film progresses. But Doebereiner is the real find here. As Martha, she carries her weight and emotional baggage (Martha lives at home with her elderly father) with a quiet, haunting grace. An early scene where we find Martha at church, engaged in a silent moment of - what? prayer? communion? - could have come off as unbearably arch, but Doebereiner finds a conviction in the moment that is rare among all actors, trained or otherwise. Martha remains an enigma; her face as she delivers her final line lingers beyond the closing credits.

Soderbergh isn't quite as successful at pulling off the procedural aspects of the second half. As various characters respond to a crucial plot development, the attempt at authentic responses becomes unintentionally contrived. I think I understand what Soderbergh was trying to do - underline the passivity of the characters - but even the most laconic person would probably be more expressive in such a situation. Perhaps I'm mistaken. Soderbergh seems to be attempting a minimalist approach to drama, but Gus Van Sant, for instance, pulled this sort of thing off with more clarity in Elephant. It's not enough to sink the movie, but the monotonous inevitability of the second half is a bit simpler than I think it was meant to be. In saying this, however, I do intend to return to Bubble down the line; there remains the lingering feeling that there's more going on here than meets the eye.

Soderbergh, once the golden boy of indie cinema, has been a bit underappreciated as of late. In both small films like this one and big-studio tentpoles like Ocean's Twelve (an extremely misunderstood film), he maintains a consistent vision and an unwillingness to kowtow to conventional audience demands. I suspect that, more than anything, he was attracted to the simultaneous-release model of Bubble as a means of tossing a fig at the Hollywood machine. And while I value the big-screen experience over everything and I'm not sure that Marc Cuban's answer is the right one, I'm at least glad that someone is challenging the exhibitors to fight back; we in the audience can only benefit from the outcome. Soderbergh has long rejected the title of auteur, but I'm afraid he just might have to accept it; I can't imagine Bubble being made by anyone else.

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