There are a lot of things it would be easy to dislike about Bubble, the latest film by director Steven Soderbergh. The characters are dull, ordinary people who don't do or say anything of consequence until well into the movie. The settings are cramped and unlovely; the digital-video cinematography (by Soderbergh himself under his usual pseudonym, Peter Andrews), harsh and flat. The movie's rhythms are so ungainly that it frequently seems rhythmless. All the more remarkable, then, that from these feeble elements Soderbergh has assembled a film of uncommon power, an eerily compelling glimpse at the drama bubbling beneath the surface of everyday life.
Since more or less launching the contemporary indie scene with Sex, Lies and Videotape in 1989, Soderbergh has wandered the cinematic spectrum from low-budget noirs (The Underneath, The Limey) to sci-fi brain-teasers (Kafka, Solaris) to Oscar-bait issue-movies (Traffic, Erin Brockovich) to glossy entertainments (Ocean's Eleven). Having very nearly fallen off one end of said spectrum with 2004's star-bloated Ocean's Twelve, he's now sidled up to the opposite edge with Bubble. Set in rural, impoverished Ohio, it was shot on location and features a cast made up of nonprofessional locals, some of whom contributed to their characters' dialogue--if that's really the proper word for the mumbled banalities they exchange. In case this aggressive underdramatization didn't announce Soderbergh's experimental intentions clearly enough, he released Bubble simultaneously in theaters, on HDNet television, and on DVD--a provocation that led some theaters to refuse to screen the movie. It's hard to think of a more emphatic assertion of artistic independence by a director whom Hollywood has so embraced.
Bubble tells the story of three blue-collar workers at a doll factory. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a plain, heavyset woman who looks to be in her forties but may be younger, is self-described "best friends" with Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a slacker in his early twenties. The relationship is not romantic, but rather functions as a substitute for romance: Martha picks Kyle up for work, eats meals with him, and at the end of the day drives him to his second job at a shovel factory. Both seem resigned to their meager fortunes. For Martha, who cares for an elderly father, the accumulated years of drudge-work hang like a physical weight. Kyle, who lives with his unemployed mother, wants to save money for a car but has managed to amass only "drawer change."
Their mundane routines are broken up by the arrival at the factory of Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), a pretty 23-year-old who, unlike Martha and Kyle, is always on the lookout for something better. When she tells them, "I'm very ready to get out of this area ... [b]ecause there's nothing here," the word "nothing" is like an indictment of their lives. Rose quickly insinuates herself between the pair: With Kyle, she is quietly flirtatious, pulling him away from lunch for trips to the smokers' lounge. She knows she can have him in ways Martha never will, though it is unclear exactly why she wants him--love? money? or merely to brandish her sexual superiority? From Martha, meanwhile, she requests an escalating series of personal favors--a lift to her other job, a night of babysitting her two-year-old daughter.
This triangular dynamic unfolds in a series of telling, understated moments: the half-smile, almost a sneer, that Rose flashes Kyle when she's introduced at the plant; Martha's astonishment at the opulence of a suburban house that Rose cleans ("You could fit my whole house in two rooms of that house," she later tells Kyle) and at Rose's audacity when she takes a bath in the master tub. The dialogue, too, while never seeming to be about much of anything, is almost always about who possesses whom, who is the superior and who the subordinate. The gradual accretion of banal details creates an unexpected level of tension as the film progresses, tension that finally leads to a murder. I won't say whose, or by whom. But when the police detective shows up, he is played, appropriately enough, by another nonprofessional actor who is in fact a police detective.
Bubble is not a murder mystery, however. Rather, it is an intimate piece of cinematic portraiture. Soderbergh and his amateur cast get unnervingly under the skin, capturing each small slight and imposition with excruciating vividness. The resulting wounds and resentments are all the more real for being largely unacknowledged: These characters have seen their needs and aspirations beaten down for so long that they can barely recognize, let alone articulate, them any more.
A number of critics described the film as condescending because it depicts the lives of its working-poor protagonists as so drab and unreflective. (Slate's Stephen Metcalf went so far as to complain that "the working poor deserve makeup, wardrobe, decent lighting, and some heart-skipping drama," in essence chiding Soderbergh for insufficiently glamorizing poverty.) For me, Bubble's bleak but sympathetic portrayal was a welcome change from the usual gloss, a rare cinematic admission that economic impoverishment often begets spiritual impoverishment. Hollywood typically portrays poor characters as uniquely virtuous or colorful or grounded, as if poverty was a financial burden but a moral gift. That's condescending.
Bubble is not a great film in any conventional sense. With its flat, static compositions, it's actually better suited for the small screen on which it was simultaneously released. But it is a strangely gripping little drama, a reminder that cinema can be powerful even when it's not at all cinematic.
The Home Movies List: Soderbergh's spectrum
Kafka (1991). A mess, but an interesting one, mixing elements of noir, science fiction, German Expressionism, humor, and horror into a dystopian nightmare reminiscent of an out-of-control Brazil. Actor David Jensen, who's had small roles in many Soderbergh movies, is exceptionally creepy as "the laughing man."
The Underneath (1995). Another genre experiment--the movie is a loose remake of the 1949 noir classic Criss Cross--that doesn't quite work. Soderbergh layers on enough psychological detail early that when the heist plot finally kicks into gear it's a bit of a disappointment. Still, eminently watchable.
Out of Sight (1998). One of the most overlooked movies of the 1990s. Everyone involved--Soderbergh, screenwriter Scott Frank, stars George Clooney, Don Cheadle, Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, and, yes, Jennifer Lopez--is in absolute top form. Probably the only Elmore Leonard adaptation (out of two dozen) that exceeds its source material.
Erin Brockovich (2000). So what did you do in 2000? Soderbergh merely directed two movies that earned nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, this and the somewhat overrated Traffic. Sadly, the real-life Erin Brockovich may be less heroic than the film version, as this excellent 2003 TNR piece catalogues.
Ocean's Eleven (2001). Thin but delightful, even with a miscast Julia Roberts. (And who imagined that Brad Pitt was going to out-cool Clooney?) By relegating some of the best characters to the margins--Carl Reiner, Bernie Mac, "Mormon twins" Scott Caan and Casey Affleck--the sequel, Ocean's Twelve, made this one look even better than it was.
This post originally appeared at TNR.com.