Midwestern mirror

Kyle Smith

The other night I caught the beginning of Flight 93, a TV-movie about the hijacked 9/11 plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania. I could barely stand the opening credits – the film was imbued with colossal, inevitable sadness; like that joke about the ship sinking in Titanic, except not funny.

From the opening credits, Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble is similarly bereft of hope, even though one knows nothing about what will happen. Actually, that’s not true: Bubble went from a cinephilic curio (a la Soderbergh’s earlier forays into maddeningly esoteric filmmaking) to the fringe of the national movie-going consciousness. With Maverick man Mark Cuban behind the film, its central gimmick (a simultaneous release in theaters, on DVD and on Cuban’s HDNet network) has overshadowed its secondary gimmick -the fact that Soderbergh shot the film with non-professionals in a small Midwestern town. This reaffirms Soderbergh as the poor man’s Gus Van Sant; the latter’s Elephant was a fluid exploration in movement and style with Portland kids, while Bubble is a static look at small-town life with lower-class Ohio Valley adults.

It’s hard to deny that Soderbergh nails it. The most insulting part of Soderbergh’s method is the film’s tagline; “Another Steven Soderbergh Experience,” apparently designed to remind nerds of Schizopolis and Gray’s Anatomy while hooking those whose lives were irrevocably transformed by Ocean’s Twelve to pay homage to their leader. A few weeks ago I wrote about how sleeping during a movie doesn’t necessarily ruin the experience, and Bubble reminded me of a similar phenomenon – you don’t have to understand what the hell the actors are saying to enjoy a film.

The three characters at the center of Bubble all work in a doll factory, and they all annunciate as clearly as a Teddy Ruxpin. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, a 24-year KFC veteran) has a strange non-sexual relationship with Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), who goes on a date with single mother Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins, a real-life hairdresser with four children), who is estranged from her baby’s daddy Jake (Kyle Smith). Minimalist to a fault, Bubble is designed in such a fashion that can’t say a damn thing about its plot without revealing its ending.

Soderbergh prefers masterfully framed wide shots (they make the murmuring voices even more remote) and the lovely acoustic strumming of Dayton’s favorite son, Bob Pollard. He also loves his metaphor of the doll factory, with good reason – the inherent creepiness of a hollow plastic doll is the perfect counter to the natural politeness of the Midwest working class. The most remarkable moment in Bubble is a slight disagreement between two characters, a mild breakdown in the Midwest’s code of etiquette that stretches across social hierarchy. Such a minor break in manners destroys lives, making Soderbergh’s vision of middle America even bleaker than Lars von Trier’s Dogville.

The film’s marketing prides itself on Bubble’s new level of realism, but this is still an exercise in style. The realism comes from the actors, who are clearly amateurs. But that doesn’t matter. At some point, the delivery of lines, the confidence of diction and the awkwardness between sentences is far less important than the look, feel and aura of an actor. Though the Rose character is mostly annoying, Doebereiner and Ashley are both obvious newcomers and terrific. Their performances are heartbreaking, and it’s the immediately real world that surrounds them, as evidenced by the McDonald’s bags they pick from in one scene that are neither props nor product endorsements.

That McDonald’s meal got me, those bags and those cups, almost as much as my boy Kyle Smith. There is a documentary called The Sweetest Sound by a filmmaker named Alan Berliner; the premise is that Berliner invites all the other Alan Berliners in the world (he rounds up 12 of them) to his home for dinner. For Berliner, asking “What’s in a name?” is a na