Steven Soderbergh’s Bubble is part of an intriguing new release strategy. The Oscar-winning director has signed to make six films shot on high-definition digital video, of which this is the first. It opened in select theaters on January 27 and premiered that same night on the HDNet Movies channel (which is where I saw it). The movie then arrived on DVD four days later. This “day and date” release eliminates the window between theatrical exhibition and DVD/cable broadcast. Some theater owners are unhappy about this new idea, but for an experimental little film such as Bubble, it insures a wider audience than mere art house distribution could ever provide.
Soderbergh has made experimental films before, and has openly expressed admiration for convention-bending director Richard Lester. The highly unusual nature of this film should come as no surprise to Soderbergh’s fans. In addition to shooting on hi-def video, he has cast the film with non-professional actors and used real locations. The structure of the story is quiet and introspective rather than plot-driven. You have to soak up the atmosphere in order to grasp what the film is getting at.
Bubble takes place in a small, fairly impoverished Ohio town. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner) is an unmarried woman in her mid-to-late 40’s who lives in a small house and takes care of her ailing father. By day, she works in a local doll factory. Her best friend is co-worker Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a reticent young man who lives with his unemployed mother in a tiny trailer. Their relationship is strictly platonic; Martha gives him a ride to work every day, they share their lunch break, and they casually discuss mundane details about their lives.
Work at the doll factory is dull and creepy. A montage shows how dolls are made, part by part. There is something inexplicably eerie about it, especially when Martha has to inflate the dolls’ heads with air while popping their fake eyes in. The general impression is that the spookiness must really take some kind of subliminal toll on the workers.
Things become marginally more interesting when a single mother named Rose (Misty Wilkins) comes to work at the factory. She immediately integrates herself into the friendship between her co-workers. Rose uses Martha for favors, including transportation and babysitting services, yet doesn’t always treat her nicely in return. She also strikes up a flirtation with Kyle, who takes her on a date. Rose’s ex-boyfriend shows up too, and makes a scene in front of a nervous Martha. It would unfair to say anything other than that a murder takes place, which makes the lives of the remaining characters, particularly the culprit, even more sorrowful than before.
Bubble will not be for a film for all audiences. Not many traditional things happen, in spite of the murder. There is no “action,” no humor, no sparkling dialogue to soften the edges. Instead, the emphasis is on realistically depicting a certain way of life and how decent people become trapped within it. Soderbergh, using a mostly stationary camera, picks up the little details of the characters’ lives: the clutter in their living rooms, the boredom of their jobs, the melancholy of their existence. In this regard, Bubble is one of the most authentic movies I’ve ever seen.
I have known people just like the ones in this story. Martha, Kyle, and Rose are trapped in dead-end jobs. They know that the world has a lot more to offer; those things just are not accessible to them. They don’t have enough money, enough skills, or enough opportunity to obtain those things. In one of the most telling scenes, Rose takes Martha to an upscale suburban home she cleans for extra money. Martha roams around the house with eyes wide. She can just barely imagine owning such a nice place with so many fancy accoutrements. Kyle and Rose are in generally the same boat. They float by in a haze of low wages and unrealized dreams. Ultimately, this is what Bubble is about.
The killer’s identity is eventually revealed, but the screenplay (by Coleman Hough) doesn’t spell out any clear reason for its occurrence. However, if you read between the lines you can get a sense of the tragically misguided reasons for it. The movie’s theme seems to be that desperation breeds desperate acts. Bubble has great empathy for its characters. These are not bad people; they do not intentionally harm one another. However, they don’t have many options available to them either. Every day is identical to the one before and the one after. When something extraordinary happens, everyone is at a loss to explain or define it.
I found Bubble’s approach to be as compelling as it is unsettling. The film is filled with tiny moments of truth. Some people really do live this way. Jobs really can be this soul-depleting. Murders sometimes take place in confusing ways, for inconsequential reasons. As a portrait of low-class desperation, Bubble is nothing short of haunting. Soderbergh is in complete control of his craft here, perfectly capturing a mood and getting convincing performances from his actors. In fact, Bubble feels so real that you could almost swear you’re watching a documentary.
( out of four)
Bubble is rated R for some language. The running time is 1 hour and 14 minutes.
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