What to make of Steven Soderbergh‘s latest? It’s a bemusing piece of work. Shot in HD and the first of a series of super-cheap films being released simultaneously in theaters and on DVD and TV for HDNet Films, "Bubble" has attracted some minor controversy after a caustic Hollywood Reporter review out of Venice claimed that "The sense is of a filmmaker looking down his nose at a kind of life of which he has not the slightest understanding."
It’s easy to see how the film, which features all non-professional actors from the Ohio/West Virginia border area where it was shot, could be read as condescending â€” there’s an air of conscious, deadpan naÃ¯vetÃ© about it, that, coming from a director responsible for two of the most coyly stylish, celebrity-packed films in recent times ("Ocean’s Eleven" and its lesser sequel), is far too tempting to read as ironic. But Soderbergh doesn’t seem to be trying for some postmodern commentary on small town America; if anything, he seems to be having a kind of Dogme moment, taking on a straightforward, dramatic story, and keeping the camerawork simple and largely still to make the most of the video. When he attempts something flashier, it’s so ingenuous it’s almost a blow to the head. For instance: Martha, played by Debbie Doebereiner (in real life, a Kentucky Fried Chicken manager), is in church. We’ve followed her daily routine â€” we know that she works in a doll factory; that her only friend is her much-younger co-worker, a good-looking, empty-eyed stoner named Kyle (Dustin James Ashley); that she takes care of her elderly father; and that underneath her placidly cheerful exterior she’s probably roiling over with unhappiness. To enforce this, suddenly she’s brightly lit, while everyone else in the church pews around her falls into darkness. The camera cuts closer, and we’re faced with just her eyes, guilelessly blue and framed with spidery, over-mascaraed lashes. This is Soderbergh?!
In the end, "Bubble" is more admirable than good. The actors, who also include Misty Dawn Wilkins as Rose, an attractive and manipulative single-mother whose arrival at the doll factory leads to tension, are generally tolerable, prone to underplaying their roles, fitting for a world in which the stakes are very high for what may seem unremarkable things. The story, which involves a murder, is involving, though it goes nowhere unexpected. Nor should it â€” perhaps the ultimate thing to take away from "Bubble" is a sense of how trapped behind a layer of slickness and self-consciousness filmmakers in Hollywood (and Indiewood) have become. Soderbergh has tried to leave that behind, has tried for something emotionally resonant and raw. He may not have achieved that, but he’s certainly earned something for the effort.
"Bubble" will be releases in Winter 2005 by Magnolia Pictures.