It’s basically confirmed at this point in our culture that moviegoers adore self-discovery films featuring flawed, recently-divorced female protagonists reinventing themselves over the course of a clear, 120-minute character arc. They adored Julia Roberts when she traveled worldwide to miraculously find herself in Eat, Pray Love and empathized with Diane Lane as she impulsively bought a picturesque Italian villa in Under The Tuscan Sun, but would moviegoers have felt the same if these ladies just stayed home? Writer-director Hilary Brougher begs this question in her quiet and introspective film South Mountain, as recent divorcee Lila (Talia Balsam) navigates infidelity, rage, and acceptance within the tranquil confines of the Catskill Mountains.
Despite opening up to a picturesque, light-hearted family summer barbeque, South Mountain wastes no time waiting to put Lila in the throws of it. Over the course of about a week, Lila is faced with her daughters leaving home for the summer and her screenwriter husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), giving her the shock that their marriage is officially over. However, none of that could have prepared her for the cherry on top: Edgar has started a new family with a woman from the city. After the initial shock of this bombshell subsides, Lila seems unusually fine, given her somewhat jaded and introspective nature. She does nothing more than clean her now-empty nest, spend time with her cancer-ridden friend Gigi (Andrus Nichols), and prepare to repaint some rooms gone stale; it’s nothing more than a normal life. As the days go by though, it becomes painfully clear that Lila’s mastered the art of suppression to cope with her emotional uprooting. Upon the presumably unwanted arrival of Edgar, Lila poisons him with a Vicodin-infused chocolate cake, and immediately forces him to throw it up in a moment of clarity. Also, as a rebound from her crumbled marriage, Lila begins a love-affair with immature family-friend Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer), which inevitably also crumbles as she begins to establish what she truly wants in her environment. These bouts of rage are later met with rational thinking and remorse, but still further prove that Lila is not as collected as she may seem.
Even though viewers can easily tell when Lila is really going through it, Talia Balsam makes you wonder what exactly is going on her character’s mind. Balsam’s incredibly refined performance seldom has any moments of blatant, upfront emotion; there’s much to ponder in her seemingly-vacant glances and still moments of silence. For a woman who’s gone through a myriad of struggles, it would be incredibly valid for Lila to be bursting at the seams at any given moment, just waiting to unleash her frustration on the one thing that finally tips her over the edge. However, Balsam plays it surprisingly cool, and allows Lila to breathe and revel in the utter uncertainty of this distressing situation. Even though Brougher sometimes jumbles Lila’s confusion to the point where the audience is in the same boat, Balsam still gives a gentle, yet raw performance that helps examine the incredible insecurities of womanhood.
Obviously through Brougher’s screenplay and Balsam’s performance, it’s evident that Lila’s healing process is a mess that only the mountain ranges of New York could contain. With that said, however, the other strong aspects of South Mountain also confirm that this intimate story couldn’t have been captured through film without the resources of a low budget. From the beginning, it’s evident Brougher knew the constraints of her budget, and decided to make the absolute best out of them to formulate an incredibly heartfelt work of art. The handheld camera usage, the singular setting, and the almost documentary-style filming of Lila processing the world around her feels as if the viewer is watching her heal in real-time; you can practically see Lila root herself and begin to bloom yet again. It’s a beautiful, odd, and sometimes distressing process to see, as she never really flashes the emotions hidden under her faded façade, but it’s incredibly captivating nevertheless. Essentially, this story hinges on feeling empathy towards Lila’s confused process of healing, and it does it wonderfully. But, had this story been presented through less-intimate means, the intricate and innate core of South Mountain would have eroded away into the likes of another typical indie film.
While often times incredibly grounded and uninhibited, South Mountain does have its occasional moments off the beaten path. However, these moments are few and far between and are done with such a sense of understanding for the characters, that these off-path excursions barely diminish the earthy beauty of this story. Additionally, the small-budget feel totally works in the film’s favor, and it adds a level of personality that would have been unattainable through other means. Overall, the undeniable charm throughout every aspect of Brougher’s film, in addition to Balsam’s fresh portrayal of the complex tenderness of Lila, make South Mountain an incredibly solid, slice-of-life indie film to keep an eye out for.