Opening with grey clouds, waterfalls and chirping birds, Hilary Brougher’s indie drama, South Mountain, quietly eases into its introduction. We see two kids returning home from an aimless stroll through the forest, as Brougher unassumingly draws us closer to their family’s life in the remote Catskill Mountains. A peaceful scenario is set, where summertime listlessness seems to reign: the dad is reading the newspaper outside of the house, the kids are bickering and playing with fireworks, and the mom is casually chatting with her best friend. The film imbues a welcoming essence as it freely floats through its scenery, promising a serene look at a family’s life in the wild. However, it doesn’t take too long to realize that South Mountain is much more concerned with what happens beneath the surface.
As a mysterious undercurrent kicks in, Brougher digs the narrative beneath the skin of its two main characters: the mother, Lila, (Talia Balsam), and the father, Edgar (Scott Cohen), as the idyllic backdrop of their home in the mountains is incongruous with the state of their lives. Thus, a carefully woven web of drama, secrets, and hidden desires is built, and the distance and deceit in its lace becomes more and more apparent. South Mountain seems like a relaxing mood piece set in the openness of nature, but instead it encloses itself in the darkest, ugliest aspects of a family breaking apart.
Although, this change-up isn’t exclusively for the better. The impetus of the drama – subtle displays of distance and miscommunication between Lila and Edgar – gives way to tonal whiplash as it develops into an overly heavy-handed and soapy presentation. The low-key and intimate nature of the film especially contrasts with the more melodramatic conflict scenes between the couple, as their loud emotions are ironically drowned out by the film’s slow-burning insistence and persistent moodiness.
However, South Mountain‘s firm grasp on its aura is effective when Lila’s inner life is the focus, supported by Brougher’s ingenious utilization of space to inform the emotions at play. No longer focusing on the sprawling natural background of its setting, the film’s second half mostly takes place in the claustrophobic and cluttered spaces inside the house, establishing a much different location for Lila’s scenes of inner turmoil. Whether alone, talking with her friend, or getting temporarily involved with a younger man, Lila’s scenes of coping are burdened by an immense heaviness that the monotone filmmaking, as well as the droning cello-driven score, aid in cultivating. Talia Balsam’s memorable performance keeps the film afloat in these slower, wallowing scenes as she captivatingly imprints her emotional aches into her tired and withered face, and subtly communicates Lila’s restlessness and conflicted feelings.
The end of South Mountain feels like a giant weight has lifted. After so much of the film is spent at a distance from the freedom and calmness with which it began, we return to the outdoors for a brighter ending that is satisfying and much needed. Finally a step beyond the numbness that dominated the film, hope exists, life opens up once again, and Lila’s emotional wounds seems to start closing.
While its dramatic beats may not hit all the right notes, or be as delicate as the study of the interiority of its main characters, South Mountain emerges as a fully realized, intimate mood piece, especially when it concentrates on the characters’ relationship with their immediate surroundings.