Confession time: South Mountain is not a movie I would ever normally see. It’s a slow-burning, single location, family drama with about as much buzz as a dead bee. The only reason I saw it at SXSW was because it was screening early enough that I could watch it and still catch my flight home — a final film to add to my review count. I did absolutely no research on it other than seeing that the time worked, knowing the title, and reaching out to the film’s publicist to secure a ticket. The latter I didn’t even need to do as the premiere screening’s early show time on a Monday meant the theater was only half full.
It should have been jam-packed, and I couldn’t be happier I randomly stumbled onto the film. Hilary Brougher’s film is a touching, well-executed look at the end of a relationship that feels more real than most films and unravels itself in such a way as to stand out from the crowd. Far from boring, the film pulls you into its lead character’s life without presumption, judgment, or melodrama. It is simply a slice of a life that I am glad I got to see.
Director: Hilary Brougher
Release Date: March 11, 2019 (SXSW Premiere)
Lila (Talia Balsam) is a bit of a hippie living out a somewhat happy existence with her family in the Catskills, but as her adopted daughter Sam (Macaulee Cassaday) heads out for a months-long boat trip and her younger daughter Dara (Naian González Norvind) leaves for camp she discovers that her husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), has secretly been having an affair and is now the proud father of a baby boy. From here the movie slowly opens up Lila’s life and we see in strikingly simple ways her marriage deteriorate, and what at first looks like a standard affair story evolve into a film about acceptance, awakening, and moving on.
The movie is broken up into vignettes of a sort. The plot doesn’t really develop, instead, like the creeks that weave around the family’s house, steadily flows forward through the slow reliability of each day happening after the next. We’re introduced to each vignette as a date, moving forward chronologically, but without filler to let us know what happened in the time between each day. Here Lila is cleaning out her room and angry with her best friend. Next, Edgar comes for a visit and lunch. Lila falls into the arms of a younger lover. Sam returns, angry at her father.
The structure allows the film to unfold in a far different way than most movies, a way that feels more like real life than drama. For instance, when Edgar finally tells Lila about the affair and child it is over the phone. We simply hear Lila’s end of the conversation, Edgar’s voice muffled as we watch Lila, in her beloved garden, trembling with the news. We don’t see the explosion, though. The fireworks are off screen as Lila hangs up the phone and charges inside the house. Cut to weeks later. Another vignette. Life moved on. The reckoning is not a moment, but a series of events. Brougher’s camera is never interested in amping up the action but simply letting it play. A running motif throughout the film is flies and other bugs coming into the house through a broken screen door, they interrupt shots in much the same way as they do the character’s life.
The movie honestly wouldn’t work without Balsam, who portrays Lila with a buried anger that never erupts but is constantly there. Her attempts to salvage her marriage, her anger, her slips; everything is filtered through the perfectly restrained lense of a stunning performance. A moment of weakness between her and Edgar as they slide out of each other’s lives could have been ruinous to the movie’s themes but instead feels like an emotional blast of reality other films would shy away from thanks to the two actor’s performances. I doubt South Mountain will get much attention come award season, but if anyone deserves recognition its Balsam.
I know, I know. This isn’t the kind of movie you just sit down and watch. Hell, it’s not even clear if you’ll be able to see this outside of festival circuits and limited release indie theaters. But if you do get the chance, do so. It’s not the kind of movie you rush out to see but it is the kind of movie that will stick with you once you do.