Steel City is a film that takes the “less is more” credo a little too far. While there’s nothing wrong with a nice dramatic pause or a lingering shot of a person’s face, sometimes you just want to see a little spark--or, better yet, a climax that warrants the slow-paced buildup to that point. Not the case here. Steel City never really figures out where it wants to go and so it ultimately goes nowhere. It’s about as exciting as a Friday night spent folding laundry and listening to Light FM.
The sad part is that the acting all around is really good--and it nearly saves the film from being a tedious snooze. John Heard, who has been working for decades in diverse projects ranging from Beaches to ‘The Sopranos’, turns in a great, minimalist performance as Carl Lee, the patriarch of a blue-collar family in a small town. He’s just been incarcerated for killing a woman (which is not as black and white as it sounds) and his two sons, PJ (Thomas Guiry) and Ben (Clayne Crawford), aren’t taking the news very well. They’re basically a couple of screwballs and the event sends them further into a tailspin--it’s almost like they were looking for a good reason to plummet deeper into a pathetic existence. Well, they got one.
PJ works as a dishwasher and, when he runs out of funds, he moves in with Uncle “I’m all I need” Vic, an ex-veteran who never married and likes a particularly clean bathroom. Rather than being a gracious houseguest, he spends a good amount of time moping that he has to work and commenting on the sizeable rear end of his girlfriend, played by America Ferrera (not so ‘Ugly Betty’). Equally as charming is Ben, a reluctant family man who spends more time doing body shots with a local bartender (Heather McComb) than hanging with his wife and kid.
Why exactly is this interesting to watch? Oh, that’s right, it’s not. While the film has good intentions--how many films are there that focus on the emotional relationships between working-class men?--there is not enough heft to hold it together. It relies mainly on its sullen, comatose vibe, which is aided by the grainy look of the film, shot on Fuji Super-16mm, and the occasional plucky guitar note tossed in to build dramatic tension.
But Steel City merely gives us a face-value representation of a family, never really exploring why they do what they do or what led them to that point. We’re simply expected to be satiated by the measly crumbs of information that writer/director/editor Brian Jun, in his feature debut, throws at us. It’s a shame because this movie was clearly close to his heart, as he was heavily involved in production and shot it in 22 days around his hometown of Alton, Ill., back in 2004.
That’s right--it sat on the shelf for three years. Consider that a fair warning.