| February 6, 2006

If you’ve heard of Bubble, the latest cinematic “experience” from Steven Soderbergh, chances are it’s because of its unique and controversial distribution strategy: much to the chagrin of theater owners everywhere, the film is being released simultaneously in multiplexes, on DVD, and on cable. Or maybe you’ve seen the creepy, surreal theatrical trailer, which depicts a montage of deformed, plastic baby-doll heads. Either way, none of the pre-release hype or promotional materials surrounding the movie sufficiently prepare you for what it’s actually like to watch.
Far from the avant-garde stunt it appears to be, Bubble is a very small, very understated slice-of-life drama. Shot on HD and featuring a cast of complete unknowns, it’s a low-budget artistic experiment likely to turn off as many viewers as it intrigues. How you’ll respond to the film depends entirely on your ability to get on its very particular wavelength, and appreciate the modest pleasures this peculiar diversion has to offer.
Set in a small industrial town in Ohio, Bubble quietly but purposefully traces the lives of its lonely blue-collar protagonists. When she’s not caring for her elderly father, Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), who’s overweight and pushing fifty, works at the local doll factory. Her best friend and co-worker, Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), is a soft-spoken young man in his twenties. The two go to work, engage in polite but mundane conversation, and interact intermittently with their family members. A portrait of working-class malaise, the film depicts its characters’ lives as a monotonous but comfortable trap, one built around a sense of structure and routine. Martha and Kyle may be unsatisfied, on some level, but at least they know what to expect. When Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), an attractive young woman from out of town, begins working at the doll factory, the fragile equilibrium of their habit-based lives is disrupted, and there are consequences for everyone involved.
Slow and uneventful by design, Bubble feels less like a traditional narrative drama and more like a series of moments, vivid snap-shots of small town desolation. Exploring a newfound fascination with the mundane, Soderbergh lingers on the sheer banality of his characters’ lives, and on conversations that amount to little more than awkward small talk. But there is method to this madness, and it is contained within the wonderfully natural performances of his inexperienced leads. Martha, Kyle, and Rose simply exist on screen, not as creations of the script but as real people you might encounter in your everyday life. Coming from these nonactors, the dialogue is refreshingly authentic, with the exchanges driven by the completely believable quirks and nuances of the characters. And, remarkably, these scenes are also load-bearing: every line of dialogue, every subtle glance or mannerism, is invested with subtext. The film would be dull and rather weightless were it not for the glimmers of desperation embedded in each scene.
Perhaps wary of making a movie stripped entirely of explicit drama or action, Soderbergh shifts gears at the end of the second act, tacking a big plot development onto his otherwise static narrative. This proves, in fact, to be a bit of a miscalculation: while the events that occur make sense thematically, they force a more conventional ending on the film, one that doesn’t gel entirely with its loose, observational nature. It would have been braver and much more appropriate for the movie to build to a less disruptive climax. Or maybe it shouldn’t build to a definitive climax at all, but rather just fade out on these lives, with as little fanfare as they were introduced. This turn for the sensational, as modest as it really is, betrays the film’s more interesting, admirable intentions.
Still, it’s quite satisfying to see Soderbergh, whose last two features were the garish, insipid Ocean’s Twelve and the bombastic Solaris, make something small and intimate again. Freed of his latter-day, stylistic trademarks (mixed-up chronology, non-synchronous dialogue, funky music), the director displays an artistic ingenuity that has been lacking from his work for years. And though Bubble feels less like a permanent return to form than a quick, in-between-movies experiment, it is reportedly only the first of six low budget projects the filmmaker has in the works. Is Soderbergh attempting some sort of artistic about-face, a reinvention comparable to the one Gus Van Sant recently pulled off? Probably not, especially considering that Ocean’s Thirteen has just been announced. Regardless, Bubble proves that it’s never too late to get it back and to return to your roots.

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