Seeing this slice-of-life movie reinforced Judge Gordon Sullivan's preference for slices of pepperoni pizza.
A father behind bars. A secret that would change everything.
Films have a short shelf life. If they don't get released soon after they're finished, they tend to spoil in the can. That's my romantic view of the fact that films that don't get immediate distribution are often not very good. A less romantic view would be that films that don't get released quickly are probably bad enough to not deserve a release at all. Steel City debuted at Sundance in January 2006, saw release in three theaters in the middle of 2007, and is finally making its way to DVD. I don't think it deserved to not be released at all, but the DVD market seems a perfect fit for this low-key indie drama.
Facts of the Case
Carl Lee (John Heard, The Guardian) is in jail for killing a woman while driving with his son PJ (Tom Guiry, Strangers With Candy). As the youngest son, PJ is left to fend for himself by fixing his dad's truck and getting a job. He has help with the latter from his Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry, Training Day) who secures him a job in contracting. He's also struggling with a budding relationship with former co-worker Amy (America Ferrera, Ugly Betty). PJ isn't the only one having trouble with women. His brother, Ben (Clayne Crawford, Swimfan), is a new father, but he's also stepping out on his wife. It seems everyone has secrets which could tear the family apart.
I'll start with the one positive thing I can say for Steel City: it has a uniformly excellent cast. Every one of the performers has created a character that seems real. I'm so used to seeing John Heard as the good guy that it was amazing to see his transformation here as a loser trying to get it together. He's not in much of the movie, but he improves all the scenes he's in. It's also nice to see Raymond J. Barry looking something other than sinister as Uncle Vic. Barry has seemed to me like an actor who got by on the fact that he looks intense, but he really showed off his chops in this film, making Uncle Vic seem like a real person. America Ferrera is sweet (but not naïve) as Amy, giving a nice foil to the innocent (and sometimes clueless) PJ, who is the center of the film. Tom Guiry handles all this attention well, showing the emotional turmoil that PJ experiences due to the loss of his father and estrangement of his brother (and the big old secret that he carries around). His brother is also ably played by Clayne Crawford. I certainly didn't like the character, but that was because Clayne played him so well.
Sadly, that's all the good stuff I can say about Steel City. The film tries valiantly to be a slice-of-life drama, focusing on the aftermath of on particular incident (a car crash), and how it highlights all the cracks in an already broken family structure. The problem is that this slice-of-life drama utterly lacks drama. There's no real tension, and certainly no resolution. I got the sense that Carl and PJ had grown slightly as characters, but only in the most cliché ways. Naturally Carl admits he's been a poor father, and PJ learns how to grow up. Nothing beyond the general situation seems to prompt these feelings, and there isn't much in the way of conflict or resolution. The tagline and plot description for the film promise a "secret," but it comes out about halfway through the film and isn't much of a secret, as far as things go. I won't give it away, but it's much more impressive on paper than when it plays out in the film. After the great reveal, the film putters along, with no clear place to stop (again, there's not much conflict) until the credits roll. When all is said and done, I feel like I know these characters pretty well; I also know that I just don't care.
Although I might not care about the characters or the film, someone obviously does, and they put a lot of love into this DVD. The video has a nice indie sheen to it, like it was filmed quickly and with little light. The gritty texture works in the film's favor, giving it a more authentic feel. The DVD highlights these textures well, with no obvious transfer difficulties. The audio did a fine job balancing the dialogue and other sounds.
Although not a packed special edition, this disc has some extras to please fans of the film. The first is a short film (about 12 minutes) from the director of Steel City. It shows some interesting visual ideas, but is hardly essential. There are also some deleted scenes. They're mostly extra character moments, well acted like the rest of the feature, but don't add much to the story. There are also two commentaries. The first features writer/director Brian Jun, director of photography Ryan Samul, and actors John Heard and Clyane Crawford. The group is lively and obviously love the film. They share production stories and discuss the actors. If you enjoyed the film, it's certainly worth a listen. The second commentary features writer/director Brian Jun and director of photography Ryan Samul. Unsurprisingly, this commentary is a little more technical, but still filled with insights into the film. As I said, not a loaded edition, but more than many indie dramas get.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you like excellent acting and don't mind films that lack narrative drive, then Steel City is worth a spin.
A drama that lacks drama doesn't have much going for it. Luckily, Steel City has some excellent performances to keep it afloat. It wasn't my cup of tea, but I can't complain about this DVD. Those with any interest in the featured players are urged to seek the film out.
Steel City is guilty of using good actors in service of a lackluster script. Brian Jun is ordered to work with another writer for his next cinematic outing.
Give us your feedback!
Scales of Justice
Studio: Peace Arch Entertainment
• Deleted Scenes
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.