Steel City

Steel City (2006)
Peace Arch Entertainment
Cast: John Heard, Clayne Crawford, America Ferrera, Heather McComb, James McDaniel, James DeBello, Tom Guiry
Extras: Commentary Track, Deleted Scenes, Short Gilm, Gallery, Trailer

A really good indie film has the capacity to tap into what's unexpectedly real in life, sometimes bringing you to haunting flashpoint such as "The River's Edge," "Blue Velvet" or last year's unexpected Academy swiper "No Country For Old Men," while often the temptation to edify itself and its audience causes a well-versed character study like "Get On the Bus" or "12 Angry Men" to go for the cerebral instead of the jugular. In some cases, there's heart amidst the blunt nature of these films, and in some cases, they're soulless despite their remarkable formation.

"Steel City" is an indie film that tries to incorporate both elements and in the end spins a subdued, frequently morose tale about a spliced family with the constituents seeking redemption in their own ways, despite a hidden secret unknowingly locking all parties to their fates. While the title would imply a Pittsburgh-based sociodrama, the scene is jerked into Midwest Illinois in an appropriately cold and slate-colored microcosm which a lot of critics are hearkening to the equivalent of a Bruce Springsteen-esque heartland sonnet. True enough, and add some blue collar John Mellancamp Americana to the mix along with a ruddy dash of John Lennon working class heroism and a spiteful shot of acoustic angst to underscore the dysfunctional barricades dividing a father from his once-abandoned sons and estranged ex-wife now living in a mixed marriage.

Tom Guiry assumes the lead role PJ Lee, the central conduit of "Steel City's" composite storyline. The youngest of the two brothers (Clayne Crawford playing the bitter pill older sibling Ben), PJ is literally left holding the bag when his father (John Heard) is arrested for vehicular manslaughter and as "Steel City" plays itself out in gradual, tighly-cut scenes, we see a post-adolescent youth thrust directly into the problematic existence of adulthood. With his father in the clink, his mother (Roseanne's Laurie Metcalf) in her own isolated, happy existence and his brother Ben triggering his own household to decimate at the seams from infidelity and inherent paranoia, PJ is a walking time bomb whose only saving grace is his resistant love for a Latina co-worker Amy (America Ferrera).

We are introduced to PJ bearing a juicy welt on his face, which is revealed later in the film to have originated from a brawl with Ben, who blames PJ for the wreckage of his marriage and ultimately his troubled life. PJ cannot singly hold onto the family's house bussing tables and as his electricity and water are snapped off and he loses his job in the restaurant, we watch him unravel scene-by-scene, even as his well-intentioned though sometimes gruff Uncle Vic (Raymond Berry, who puts in one of "Steel City's" grittiest performances) takes him under his wing. The continuous rebellion PJ fights inside himself makes him a bit hard to like on the front, but at the same time, he is utterly sympathetic with all that he's contended with, which includes, as the plot unfurls, guilt over being the true culprit in the car accident for which his father is sitting in his place behind bars.

Trying to atone for his past sins, John Heard refuses to let PJ take the rap and welcomes his son's sentence, which in turn, ends up indirectly unifying the scattered particles of his discarded family. While some might find this proposal hard to get one's head around, it gives "Steel City" the sense of recovery and salvation that director/writer Brian Jun needles for an hour and a half to achieve. As PJ ends up taking the brunt of his confusing and potentially life-altering events and balking angrily at it all, his reality check comes from Uncle Vic, even as PJ's father gets whisked to prison. By the film's end, PJ has grown tremendously, as has his immediate circle.

Where "Steel City" succeeds most is its everyman's veracity that still allots for twists of the uncharacteristic, such as interracial relationships and sacrifice of the highest order begetting its own reward in the end. As the Lee family could've fully imploded and scattered from its core hub, there is closure and healing even in the midst of a dark, looming secret that PJ must carry with him forever. In the case of "Steel City," happily ever after still comes with a burden…