Nevertheless Film Festival: South Mountain

When home falls apart, we learn to shelter ourselves

by Jenny Hong

Some get a new beginning, some lose everything

South Mountain, directed and written by Hilary Brougher, begins with a snippet of a family’s domestic life tucked away in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. Lila (Talia Balsam) faces a distracted husband, Edgar (Scott Cohen), who is absent from the family table and locks himself in the bedroom. He consoles his mistress, Gemma (Isis Masoud), through the phone screen as she prepares to go into labor and we witness the birth of their child. Incorporated with real footage from Masoud’s labor, the onscreen birth scene starts the film with an intense fragility. When Edgar decides to start a new family, Lila’s life falls apart.

The film first premiered at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2019, promoted with the text “Home is where the heart breaks” or in Brougher’s owns words, “A love story about building back from a breakup”. However, the themes of the movie go beyond familial relations and love, as we have ample moments focused on Lila’s internality as she comes to terms with the sudden end of her marriage. Her daughters, Dara (Naian Norvind) and Sam (Macaulee Cassaday), have left for summer camp, and her close friend, Gigi (Andrus Nichols) is undergoing chemotherapy. Lila needs to figure out how to rise above the upheavals life has thrown her way without losing herself in the process.

In one sharp moment of the film, she attempts to poison Edgar but quickly stops herself. Balsam and Cohen performed this scene perfectly, creating this dark comedic moment that aroused a good laugh among the audience. In another scene, she says to Jonah (Michael Oberholtzer), a younger man she befriends and has a brief affair with, “I think where there’s love there’s potential for violence”. Lines like these delivered with a blatant audacity unexpectedly brings a lighthearted tone to the solemn plot.

Just find one thing that keeps you going

The star of the film is inevitably the character Lila, with Balsam’s heartfelt performance and the emphasis placed on her solitary healing. We empathize with her confusion and wonder what we would do if we were her. She’s frustrated and lost, but unable to stop caring about her broken family. She tells Jonah, and likely herself, to “find the thing that stops you from killing yourself”. The film goes on to reveal that she had suicidal attempts the first time Edgar tried to leave. Problems buried away neglected never truly go away, and the reality now is heavier than ever on Lila. She honestly asserts, running away is only an option for young people, and her character bears an authentic perspective on the turmoil of midlife. The most poignant scene is perhaps seeing the daughters meet and hold their newborn half-brother for the first time, as Lila watches them through the window, unable to join her family in this intimate moment.

The gradual pace of each scene allows the characters to carry the film adeptly. Without melodramatic plot twists or a gripping climax, we still immerse into the realness of the film. South Mountain is somber, but also humorous and hopeful. The final shot is nothing short of gorgeous; a close-up of slowly dissolving sugar cubes, Lila and Dara sitting serenely in the backyard sipping tea. Sometimes, all we need is a simple gratifying moment to regain ourselves, and the film reminds us of just that.

South Mountain was one of the 26 films featured in the Nevertheless Film Festival, which debuted in Ann Arbor and ran from July 11-14, 2019 at the Michigan Theater. A small festival elevating the work of female-identifying filmmakers in a mighty way, we look forward to many more years of the festival.

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