Steel City

on May 25, 2007 by Ray Greene
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'Heartfelt' was in at Sundance 2006, and this fugue on masculine identity and forgiveness fit the trend. A coming-of-age story focusing on PJ (Tom Guiry), a 20ish restaurant worker whose father (John Heard) has just been imprisoned awaiting trial on a charge of vehicular manslaughter, "Steel City" yearns to show the sensitive side of blue-collar males. The visual backdrops are believable. The action in the foreground, well, that's another story.

Shorthand flashbacks show Dad deserting his family when PJ and his rough-and-tumble brother Ben (Clayne Crawford) were just children, which seems to be all the explanation "Steel City" is willing to offer for pretty much every action taken by the majority of its main characters. Ben, who works at the local steel mill, is cheating on his wife, in the process betraying his newborn daughter and repeating his father's mistakes. Dad is trying to undo the hurt he caused in the past by transforming himself into a good father, even while behind bars. Meanwhile, PJ is lost and flailing, until he moves in with his tough ex-military uncle Vic (a grizzled Raymond J. Barry), a hardass with a heart of gold.

But then, everybody in "Steel City" has a heart of gold beneath their prickly exteriors, and despite excellent performances from Crawford and Barry, these touchy-feely crybabies are about as blue collar as Spongebob Squarepants. Much soap opera-ish dialogue and a lot of arguments of the "Don't do the things I did!" and "I don't want to end up like you!" variety ensue, designed to provide surface drama where there isn't all that much at stake underneath. Both Guiry and Heard are far too upscale in appearance and pronunciation to play Steelville townies, which is a pretty critical flaw considering how heavily "Steel City" relies on local color for its dramatic effects.

There's a moment of truth early on that shows how fraudulent the rest of the film is. PJ is working on a construction site at a new job Vic got for him. He's smoking a cigarette with two co-workers -- potbellied hardhats with flushed faces and casually racist attitudes that ring so startlingly and disturbingly true it's as if somebody has just opened a window onto another planet. Then "Steel City" cuts to its next scene, and we lose site of that alien world forever. Too bad it's the very location this film pretends to have a map to. Starring John Heard, Tom Guiry, America Ferrera and Clayne Crawford. Directed and written by Brian Jun. Produced by Brian Jun and Ryan Harper. No distribution set. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 95 min.

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