Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, a 24 year manager of a Parkersburg, West Virginia KFC) is seemingly content with her life caring for her aged father (Omar Cowan) and working in a doll factory with her self-proclaimed 'best friend' Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a young man of few words at least ten years younger than she. But when a new coworker, Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), enters the picture and boldly turns the duo into a trio, Martha Hightower experiences a burst in her "Bubble."
Director/cinematographer/editor Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's Twelve") has been moving back and forth across the line between low budget independent filmmaking and big budget studio movies for years now, but ironically, the guy who helped spark the indie craze with his "sex, lies and videotape" seventeen years ago has had less consistent results with his pet projects than his mainstream movies. Until now, that is. "Bubble" is a thoroughly engrossing character study of the blue collar Heartland that plays as if "Junebug's" Phil Morrison had directed a non-musical likeness of Lars von Trier's "Dancer in the Dark." There may be little mystery to "Bubble's" murder, but Martha Hightower and the non-professional actress who plays her should make an indelible impression.
"Bubble" is essentially a three character piece, with each member of its triangle representing a different psychological take on the suffocating life of working multiple low wage jobs in order to eke out a living. Martha seems happy on the surface, making dolls during the day and sewing doll clothes at night as her dad watches news reports about shrinking health care benefits. Yet Martha is middle-aged, single and overweight and it becomes obvious that she's compensating for something with the fast foods that are always accessible.
She's lauded for home caring her aging father by Rose, who describes her former job in a nursing home as so difficult that only the truly devoted could stand it. Rose has developed a tough exterior since her experiences as a runaway at fifteen and the single mom makes it clear that she intends to move out of an area she finds depressed. Rose is going to grab any opportunity, even if it involves someone else's property.
Kyle, the man in the middle, coasts through life very passively. He works two jobs and rarely dates, until Rose take notice. He's a naif, blushing roses on his cheeks, the blush of a beard on his chin, who lives with his mother in a mobile home (Soderbergh used his cast's actual homes in his film) and keeps his extra money in a drawer.
Martha is unsettled by Rose's forwardness and is shocked when Rose, having asked for a ride to her second job cleaning a new multi-level middle class home, uses the home owner's Jacuzzi tub. Martha agrees to babysit for Rose for a little extra cash, then is thrown for a loop when Rose's date arrives and she discovers it is Kyle. More upset occurs when Rose returns and her ex-boyfriend Jake (K. Smith), the baby's father, storms in accusing her of stealing money and a 'bag of herb.' The next day, Detective Taylor (24 year veteran of the Parkersburg Police Department, Decker Moody) will be investigating one of these people's murder.
Soderbergh, who cast his film with locals who live the lives of his characters in and around his chosen location of Belpre, Ohio, has achieved something far deeper than the simple story would at first suggest. Writer Coleman Hough ("Full Frontal") gives each of her three main characters a crutch with which they ease their existence but it is only the one who wants to leave who seems to have self knowledge. The three non-professional actors are utterly believable, natural observing the mundane exchanges of every day life. As in "Junebug," which also featured the repression of a minimum wage job, Soderbergh establishes his locales with static shots from different angles and only occasionally lets his camera travel to follow a moving subject. Twice he uses a spotlight, pinpointing Martha in church in the first while all else fades to shadow. Later that church is recalled by the cathedral ceilings in the new development that puts Martha in awe, just as God is invoked when that light shines a second time. Music by Robert Pollard ("The United States of Leland") is straightforward and guitar driven.
"Bubble" is a sure-footed American independent film of great merit, but it also represents a new type of experiment in release strategy. In a controversial move that has seen it banned by several large theater chains, "Bubble" will be simultaneously released theatrically and on HDNet pay cable. The DVD release will follow a mere four days later (DVDs and CDs are traditionally released on Tuesdays in this country). "Bubble" is the first of six high definition digital films Soderbergh has agreed to make in a deal with 2929 Entertainment, which also owns HDNet and the Landmark Theater chain.
Innovative filmmaker Steven Soderbergh adds another feather to his eclectic moviemaker’s hat with an experiment in film distribution with the cooperation of Magnolia Pictures, Landmark Theaters and HDNet Films in the day-and-date release to theaters, DVD and, shortly after, to subscription HDTV with Bubble,” the first in a six experimental film series.
Bubble” has the look and feel of a talented newcomer’s work with hand-held video camera work, a cast of non-professional actors and simple, on location sets in small town eastern Ohio. The story revolves around Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashely), a middle-aged woman and young high school dropout who work together at the local doll making company. The town and the company are riding on hard times but a big order keeps at least a few people employed at the cavernous factory.
Martha and Kyle are unlikely friends but, with so few others employed at the doll factory, there isn’t much choice for break and lunchtime company. That is until new hire Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a young single mother, comes on the scene, much to Kyle’s delight. Rose, who moonlights cleaning houses starts asking for favors from Martha, beginning with asking for a ride to a cleaning job. Rose invites Martha to come in to the beautiful home only to shock her when the younger woman takes the liberty of pilfering a bath in the fancy master bathroom.
The requests for favors continue when Rose asks Martha to baby-sit her two-year old daughter, Jessica, while she goes out on a date. When Martha arrives she is taken aback by the appearance of Rose’s date – Kyle. He drops Rose off after their night out, with Martha still there, and heads for home. A short while later, there’s a banging at Rose’s door and in barges her ex-boyfriend (and Jessica’s father), Jake (K. Smith). Jake rails at Rose for stealing money and his stash of weed and wants it back. He leaves in a threatening huff when she denies his claims of thievery.
Things get dicey when Jake is visited the next day by police detective Don Taylor (Decker Moody) who is investigating Rose’s murder just hours before. Of course, because of Jake’s turbulent relationship with Rose, he appears to be the prime suspect. Taylor questions Kyle, too, but his mother (Laurie Lee), whom the young man lives with, provides a solid alibi. When Martha is questioned, she tells the detective of the confrontation between Rose and her ex, further pointing the finger at Jake. But, the evidence taken by the cops proves, without a doubt, the real identity of the killer.
This low-key, almost meandering slice of small town life murder mystery is not all that mysterious but is an interesting exercise by a man who has made such notable films as “sex, lies and videotape,” “Out of Sight” and “Erin Brockovich.” “Bubble” has the feel that the filmmaker has decided to discard all the baggage of fame and returned to his indie filmmaker roots, utilizing non-pro local acting talent and their own homes for sets. It’s a brave move by Soderbergh who is obviously comfortable enough to be able to eschew the demands of being an A-player in Hollywood. I wonder if Spielberg could pull it off.
Second time Soderbergh collaborator, scripter Coleman Hough (“Full Frontal”) comes up with a simple story of depressed small town life with a bit of mayhem thrown in. The focus of the film, though, is not on the story but on the actors who give it life. Debbie Doebereiner, retired after working 24 years at Kentucky Fried Chicken, has a natural quality as Martha. When Rose first comes on the scene, introduced to her new co-workers, Martha’s eyes dart back and forth from Rose to Kyle. The multiple layers of meaning that look may have keep Martha an enigma to the end.
The other characters don’t have the depth given by Doebereiner but they do provide the feel of young people, uneducated, eking an existence in a small town where working two jobs to make ends meet is the norm. Kyle, who confesses to Rose, on their first date, that he is extremely shy and has a problem being among people, is played tentatively by Dustin Ashley. His mumbling insecurity is made more real if you know that the young non-pro really does have Kyle’s insecurities and fears. Misty Wilkins, as Rose, gives a perf on the same level as Ashley - not great but convincing. The rest of this little ensemble is well enough played with Decker Moody, a real police detective, giving a pretty believable performance as investigator Don Taylor.
Soderbergh wears several hats as director, cinematographer and editor (and probably made PB&J sandwiches for his cast and crew). He is back to basics and this is a refreshing and daring thing to do. “Bubble” is obviously low budget – I can’t imagine that this film even cost the equivalent of the catering budget for a big Hollywood production – but that doesn’t mean low quality. The experiment in innovative distribution, with all venues – theater, DVD and television – released simultaneously, may or may not work. But, it also may be the wave of the future. We’ll see. I give it a B.
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