Sollers Point has its finger on the pulse of a huge American problem: masculinity in crisis.
Writer-director Matthew Porterfield is a dedicated chronicler of Baltimore’s lesser-told stories, and in Sollers Point he finds a true diamond in the rough.
The story follows Keith (McCaul Lombardi), whose life after house arrest is anything but a clean slate. His family wants him to turn his life around and make good on his potential, but despite his best intentions, Keith has trouble breaking free from the same bad habits that sent him to prison in the first place.
As Porterfield unveils the web of no-win choices surrounding Keith, we start to realize his odds of a happy ending are shrinking fast. In fact, we realize this well before Keith does, which makes his self-sabotaging behavior doubly frustrating.
Guys like Keith are a ticking time bomb. When they go off, they’re going to destroy everything around them. They’re hard to support, and paradoxically so: we see so much potential in Keith, and we see him get so close to making the right choice so often, that it becomes infuriating when he repeatedly does the opposite.
Like a horror film where the audience wants to stop the victim from entering the room where they know the killer is hiding, I found myself wanting to reach through the screen and shake Keith over and over.
Which, I think, may be Porterfield’s intent.
In Sollers Point, Porterfield depicts a microcosm of a uniquely American identity crisis: men who feel trapped between an outdated ideology of what “manhood” is supposed to be, and no clear way to move toward a better, healthier, redemptive form of masculinity and adulthood.
By making us complicit in Keith’s struggle, Porterfield invites us to ask ourselves: “How did we get to this point, and what are we doing to fix it?”
Unraveling the Odyssey of Masculinity
Sollers Point is less about plot than it is about pace and pressure.
Told as a series of vignettes in which most characters appear once, our only reliable anchor is Keith… who truly is anything but reliable.
During his quest to find his purpose, Keith desperately needs a mentor… but he won’t listen. He could use a friend… but he drives them away. He craves love… but he refuses to earn it. It’s almost as if Keith has decided that he doesn’t deserve to succeed, so he’s sabotaging himself at every step as a self-inflicted punishment that he hopes someone else will rescue him from.
Unfortunately, the help Keith does get only complicates his own feelings of entitlement, self-loathing, and panic.
His father Carol (Jim Belushi) insists on tough love (which Keith rebels against). His grandmother Ladybug (Lynn Cohen) insists on unconditional love (which Keith feels unworthy of). His rival Aaron (Tom Guiry) insists that Keith is weak (which Keith is desperate to disprove). And his ex Courtney (Zazie Beetz, playing the opposite of her meta-humor role as Domino in Deadpool 2) insists that Keith should stay as far away from her as possible (which, of course… well, you can guess where that’s headed).
Sollers Point is not the story of a hero’s journey. It’s the story of a dude in distress who doesn’t realize he needs to become his own rescuer. This isn’t Star Wars. Keith isn’t trying to become a jedi. He’s just trying to become an HVAC technician — and even that winds up feeling out of reach.
But Keith isn’t a lost cause.
In fact, he has a heart of gold. Deep down, he just wants to please people. He yearns to earn the love, respect, and trust of everyone around him. He just has no idea how to actually achieve it.
And it’s this tension between what we hope Keith will do vs. our fear that he never will that drives the film’s story engine. It creates a conflict between Keith and every person he meets — but more, importantly it creates a conflict between Keith and himself.
The Damnation of Choice
In the best stories, a character’s resolution is the direct result of his or her own choices.
Black Sails is a fantastic example of how to do this over time. In every scene, episode, and season, the ever-tightening vise around Captain Flint is entirely a conflict of his own creation.
In Sollers Point, Keith walks that same line.
At first, we’re not entirely clear about what his full range of options are. But as Porterfield reveals them to us, we quickly see that there’s really only one “good” path for Keith… and we come to dread the realization that he seems hellbent on avoiding it.
At the same time, Keith occasionally makes choices that make us hope he’s about to redeem himself.
He treats his surrogate father figure, Mr. John (Felix Stevenson) with the utmost respect. He takes pity on an addict named Elaine (Alyssa Bresnahan) who likely reminds him of his own absent mother. And he puts in hard labor at his uncle’s building company, then uses his pay to buy snacks for his niece’s birthday party, even though his sister (Marin Ireland) reminds Keith that his niece would much rather have him there in person.
All of which creates an interesting empathy challenge for the audience:
What do you do when you’re infuriated by the choices of the character you’re supposed to be rooting for?
Again, I think this is Porterfield’s plan. By trapping us in Keith’s point of view, we feel the hopelessness of the vise gripping around him. At a certain point, you can even “check out” of rooting for Keith and start to root against him — or, more accurately, root for someone to enforce the boundaries and consequences that he so obviously craves.
But what does that mean for the world that Sollers Point is reflecting?
What does that mean for how we process the struggles of others — and, in particular, of the men who’ve lost their way in this world that no longer gives them the benefit of the doubt?
To answer this, let’s close by examining the two forces that shaped Keith (and America) into who he is: family and opportunity (and the lack thereof)
Mom and Money
In Sollers Point, Keith is still struggling to adjust to life after the death of his mother.
We’re not told when it happened, or exactly how. We just know that she’s gone, and we see how adrift Keith is without her love to balance out the macho posturing of his dad.
His father loves Keith, but he feels obliged to be the tough guy because he thinks that’s the kind of arms-length guidance Keith needs. Throughout the film, Keith lingers in doorways and windows, watching as his father lavishes affection on his cats, his car, and his extended family… all while withholding it from Keith.
This tension is evident in their very first scene together, in which his father comes home with three different kinds of cat food so his pets will have a choice, yet he forgets to buy milk for Keith. When Keith asks if he wants an egg, Carol simply says “no,” instead of “no thank you.” This is essentially the closest the two men will allow themselves to get: an implied favor, a brusque decline.
Keith’s dad also represents the other missing element in Keith’s life: money.
How can you be a man if you can’t earn enough to provide for yourself, your family, your lover?
Keith tries to walk the straight and narrow, but it doesn’t pay well enough to break even. He finds himself drawn to the only work he knows how to do — the illegal kind — where his concept of manhood is defined by the gansters, drug dealers, and white nationalists who hold power in that world. Keith dreams of being an artist, but he feels obliged to be a thug, because that’s how the world that pays him sees him.
Near the end of the film, Carol’s friend Gilbert (Pete Papageorge) has a monologue during a card game that sums up Sollers Point, Baltimore in particular, and America in general.
He recalls the day he went to buy his first car. He was young and broke, but he needed a reliable way to get to work. He says the car salesman looked at him like he was dirt. But when he asks where Gilbert works, and Gilbert says Bethlehem Steel, the whole game changes. The salesman respects Bethlehem Steel and the men who work there, because his own father worked there. Bethlehem Steel is the bedrock of the region, and any man who works there is a VIP in his book. He tells Gil, whom he once viewed with disdain, that he can go out on the lot and pick out any car he wants.
Bethlehem Steel is long gone now. That way of life in America has disappeared. These days, it’s designers and programmers who might expect to have that conversation in a Tesla showroom, not steelworkers and construction workers on a Ford lot.
That kind of opportunity doesn’t exist for Keith, or for men like him, who could once make a healthy honest living with their hands. His father’s friends mourn the passing of a lifestyle that Keith never even had a chance to enjoy, but its absence hasn’t prepared these men to find an alternate path to success, fulfillment, identity, or modern manhood.
It’s easier to miss what’s gone than it is to redefine yourself by what’s possible.
It’s easier to wait for someone else to rescue you than it is to do it yourself.
It’s hard to be your own hero, and it’s especially hard to “be a man.”
But if you won’t be your own hero… who will?
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