Please Note: The images used here are taken from promotional stills, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
Portland, Oregon (full disclosure: I was born and raised there, and I have an irrational love of the place), which these days has evolved along its natural path to become an outpost of progressivism and cultural hipness, is like the West Coast's own little Austin, one of those smaller but cooler cities that can get just a liiitle too precious and a liiitle too self-impressed for its own good (earning it a place as the subject of its very own self-mocking/myth-perpetuating comedy show). It's also the home of filmmaker Matt McCormick, a native who has long been a fixture on Portland's independent-film scene as a creator of short documentaries about the city's curious history and inhabitants, so it's not surprising that he would set his debut feature, Some Days Are Better than Others, there. Nor does it seem all that extraordinary that Portlandia comedienne/Sleater-Kinney cofounder Carrie Brownstein (now of Wild Flag) and The Shins' James Mercer, both prominent musical denizens of the Rose City, should star (music, film, poetry, etc., etc.: these things all overlap into the big blur of artistic community, somehow simultaneously liberating and claustrophobic, for which Portland is renowned). What is somewhat unexpected, in light of Portland's aforementioned cool-kids aura, is how emotionally true the film rings and the delicate, relaxed aesthetic it manages to achieve -- how free it is of that cloistered insecurity and need to telegraph coolness or above-it-all insularity that can come along with the first more ambitious, more widely seen step taken by someone like McCormick, who's long been a big fish in a smallish pond. The film is unprepossessing, in keeping with what you could generally think of as the Northwest indie ethos, but it's never annoyingly wee, twee, or disingenuous. Encouragingly, McCormick is able to fashion it into a minor-key symphony about minor-key lives that contains a payload of strikingly pure, melancholy, compassionate feeling.
Brownstein is Katrina, who works as a dog keeper/walker at the Humane Society and is going through the crushing end of a five-year relationship with a boyfriend whose e-mail account she's ashamed of herself for spying on, even though the breaches of trust on his part that she discovers there are infinitely worse. Katrina wishes someone other than just herself would care about her life, and so she dreams of becoming a contestant on a reality TV show, where personal crises seem to be given the sense of urgency she would like her own pain to have in the eyes of others. Mercer is Eli, a stalled grad student who works low-paying temp jobs and whose primary relationship is with his step-grandfather, Otis (David Wodehouse), whom he drives around and whose car he sometimes borrows. Eli is one of several renters in a house owned by a lesbian couple, one of whom he has a hopeless unrequited crush on (a situation I'd be willing to bet is more common in Portland's sapphic mecca than practically anywhere else); said crush works with local film/advertising production, and Eli, at the end of his anti-corporate rope and literally scheming about how to eat out on six dollars a day, is begging her more and more seriously for some kind of PA job as he dreams of the impossible utopia of making twenty bucks an hour, or at least enough for rent and food.
Eli and Katrina share a connection that's revealed at just the right time near the film's end, but there's a third, indirectly related but nicely complementary story giving equal screen time to Camille (Renee Roman Nose), an older Native American woman who works as a sorter at New Day Industries (i.e., the Goodwill), where she one day discovers a commemorative urn filled with a young woman's ashes among the used, discarded items people have given to charity. Camille, a wallflower in the depressingly anonymous, fluorescent-lit storage/sorting area where she spends most of her day (at night, she goes home to a stark and lonely modern apartment), entrusts the urn to the proper authorities, her kind-enough but indifferent manager and the police, but when it becomes clear that they can't grasp the urgency of finding the people who, she's certain, inadvertently threw away the remains of their loved one (she instantly humanizes the ashes as "someone's little girl"), she takes uncharacteristic, authority-thwarting initiative and sets out to rescue the abandoned remains and return them to their rightful place. One can see the logistical and practical reasons that Nose is not featured on the poster art and Blu-ray cover alongside Brownstein and Mercer (she hasn't nearly the celebrity or air of hip youngness they do), but the omission is niggling: it is, in fact, her presence and her character that are most indispensable to the film -- the element that, in conjunction with the sad but resilient (and noticeably more privileged, despite their very real dashed hopes and heartaches) lives of Katrina and Eli, gives the film its weight, balance, and perspective.
McCormick borrows the principal members of his crew from fellow Portlander Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Meek's Cutoff): costume designer Amanda Needham, production designer Ryan Smith, and, most notably, cinematographer Greg Schmitt, whom McCormick deploys to turn some of the film's most soaring sections into the kind of urban poetry (extended here, in one memorable scene, to the uniquely beautiful grayness of the Oregon Coast) at which he's proven himself adept in his previous work. There is a bit of that sense of space familiar from Wendy and Lucy -- a rundown, precarious, yet homey and humane Portland circa our current Great Recession -- but McCormick's sensibility is more elevated and abstract than Reichardt's; his poetry announces itself more forthrightly, with cut-off light poles against a vast sky, or interiors that place the characters in a strangely symmetrical, alienated environment -- supermarkets and thrift stores aisles, Camille's apartment, the pound where Katrina works -- reminiscent of the same Andreas Gursky photos from which Paul Thomas Anderson took inspiration for Punch-Drunk Love. Visually, it's quite a remarkable piece of work, often lovely and peculiarly evocative to look at.
There are, however, moments where the film stumbles, all in the narrative/performative territory where McCormick has not previously ventured. For one thing, it's intermittently a bit too obvious that Mercer is not a professional actor, that some of the smaller roles are played by amateurs, and that McCormick's forte is not good dramatic dialogue, subtle exposition, or the genuinely nuanced profundity he's going for when it comes to human feeling and the ways we live our lives. For another, the homemade "soap films" (kaleidoscopic extreme-close-up footage of soap bubbles) that Eli's grandpa makes and McCormick keeps harping on are turned into a tiresome retread of that floating plastic bag in American Beauty, veering the film much too far toward vague, asinine beauty-in-everything slackness and away from its generally sharper, more open-eyed view of the world. There are also some jarringly contrived, nastily ungenerous moments where our heroes are menaced by baldly stereotyped "mainstream" caricatures -- a bikini-clad blonde bimbo who's deemed better reality-show material than Katrina, the absolutely horrendous macho, sexist, homophobic jerk bossing Eli around at a moving job -- that are so one-dimensionally oppressive and shallow, just easy fodder for the cool kids to laugh at, that they come off more as straw people meant to valorize our protagonists (whom we already feel for, so it's doubly unnecessary) than anything really resembling even those baddies we all know from real life who actually do exhibit the negative characteristics these easy-target non-characters are reduced to. The score, by McCormick and Matthew Cooper, is apt enough but too frequently laid on a bit thick for overemphasis (a rookie mistake one hopes he'll grow out of).
But Brownstein offers a tender, fleshed-out, fairly heart-wrenching portrayal of the lost Katrina; Mercer's persona does jibe in a physical, visceral way with the forlorn Eli that counteracts his occasional awkwardness in character; Nose's performance heroically raises the bar for the whole endeavor; and the film is full of a visual sensitivity and a tenderness toward the blurry, fumbling aspects of life. All of that mitigates Some Days Are Better than Others's shortcomings; its faults are much more forgivable than they would have been had it been more polished but settled for merely coasting on its built-in insular coolness and indie credibility. It's a far from perfect film, but its imperfect heart is true, and when McCormick manages to stay on the beat of that heart, the film attains an extraordinary degree of effectively expressed feeling to become a sweetly humane acknowledgment of everyday loss, disappointment, and uncertainty.
THE BLU-RAY DISC:
It appears that the film (presented here in an AVC/1080p, 1.78:1 aspect-ratio transfer) was originated on high-end digital video, and it makes the transfer to digital media without a hitch, as is often the case in that scenario. Greg Schmitt's spare, clean lighting comes through perfectly; the film's muted colors and fluorescent-lit aesthetic are nicely preserved. There were no video artifacts or flaws that I would see.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack conveys the film's well-designed sound in a way that's rich, deep, and full but does not undermine the film's intimacy, and there were no noticeable audio flaws.
--A short film, also by McCormick and starring Brownstein and Mercer and made by the collaborators before they took on Some Days Are Better than Others, called Light Tiger Eye, a bit of absurdist drollery that bears virtually no relation to the feature but is amusing enough and wouldn't be out of place on Brownstein's usual Portlandia rounds.
--Two deleted scenes that, though interesting and as well-done as what made it into the final cut, were rightly left out; they would've stretched the film's fragile tone and scope in a way it didn't need.
--The film's theatrical trailer, along with a handful of other trailers from Some Days Are Better than Others distributor Palisades Tartan.
The pitfalls that instantly make the way treacherous when casting two indie-rock superstars for a film set in their natural ultra-hip habitat are mostly avoided by longtime Portland filmmaker Matt McCormick and his stars, Carrie Brownstein (Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia) and James Mercer (of The Shins): what little insularity, self-regard, or facile self-righteousness the film has are kept to a minimum and well on the periphery. Front and center is McCormick's rueful, just-this-side-of-defeatist sensibility, sensitivity, and big but subtle heart, out of which have emerged characters and situations that are unusual, desperate, and quietly moving without being "quirky" (despite the back cover copy's use of that word, which only ever calls to my mind the kinds of glib attitudes and practices that Portlandia does such a good job of mocking). The struggles Katrina (Brownstein) and Eli (Mercer) face ring true, despite their shambling, passive-aggressive, quintessentially Northwestern wounded-slacker exteriors, and McCormick has a good intuition for how best to show us their vulnerabilities and let us feel for them, along with the added wisdom to leaven their stories with that of someone who's dealing with harder circumstances and events more life-or-death than either of them, yet manages to be strong, resilient, and incredibly humane in a way that easily earns the film its shimmering strand of hard-earned hopefulness. There are moments that give Some Days Are Better than Others away as a first-time feature with a non-actor in a lead role, clumsy bits and pieces that stick out and should have been better honed, but the places where the first-timer's lack of finesse shows too much are generally offset by the overall lyrical, modest, empathetic tone that McCormick attains. It's a quiet, small film that doesn't use those attributes as an excuse for any deficiencies but eagerly takes them as an opportunity to contemplate the combination of unfulfilled longings, sadnesses, hiding-in-plain-sight connections, and incidental compensatory pleasures that can make ordinary lives, observed through the right lens, unexpectedly touching and illuminating. Recommended.