From its opening scene, in the laundry room of a modest house in Kentucky, to its last, in that same home’s backyard, Fort Maria is a film that pays attention to the domestic spaces that women create and inhabit. For the title character, played with intriguing understatement by Katerina Stoykova, that space has become a kind of prison: She hasn’t ventured beyond its perimeters in months, trapped by overwhelming anxiety since a stranger crossed those perimeters from the other side to rob her. (Call it coincidence or zeitgeist synchronicity, but a middle-aged mother’s struggles with agoraphobia are also at the center of the soon-to-be-released Jodie Foster starrer Hotel Artemis.)
Shot in silvery black-and-white by writer-directors S. Cagney Gentry and Thom Southerland, Fort Maria is what the filmmakers call “an unscripted filmic experiment” — a description that might suggest something arch or humorless. But it’s neither, avoiding heavy-handed artifice and narrative cliche and finding the tenderness, fire and everyday absurdity beneath its contained-verging-on-deadpan surface.
An engaging quartet played in a quietly quirky key.
The movie interweaves two sets of parallel conversations, with each pair of characters getting acquainted in potentially awkward circumstances. Improvised by the actors based on an outline the directors workshopped with their four stars, the dialogue has the unforced feel of people cautiously revealing themselves to one another.
For Maria and Clara (Jamie Hickman), the younger next-door neighbor she’s never really conversed with before, the awkwardness initially revolves around the matter of a dead body: Rolo, the beloved dog of Maria’s adopted daughter, Meredith (Meredith Crutcher), has up and died. Meredith is in North Carolina, getting to know Violet (Joan Brannon), the biological aunt she recently located on Facebook, and learning about her African-American birth family. Unable to leave her house for more than a few seconds, the emotionally stranded Maria asks Clara to help her move Rolo’s body — first to an upstairs room and then, grudgingly, to the garage, a fitful route that’s emblematic of the disruption Maria’s experiencing and her pains to come to grips with it.
Tellingly, Maria at first seems not like the owner of her house but rather a house-sitter or guest. A Bulgarian native and experienced traveler who now explores the world via Google Maps, she no longer feels at home where she is, and isn’t sure where she belongs. Stoykova, who previously worked with Southerland in Proud Citizen, conveys a sharp intelligence beneath her character’s neediness. Maria’s voiceover thoughts, in Bulgarian and English — the film’s only scripted elements, written by Southerland and Stoykova — range farther than Maria dares to do physically, whether she’s pressing such sore spots as her ambivalence toward her daughter’s deceased pet or observing that “my brain is torn between two languages.”
Maria’s low-grade panic, and Clara’s messy troubles with a violent ex-girlfriend, are juxtaposed with the serenity of Violet’s home and the church that she devotedly cleans. And as the story shifts between visions of communion and withdrawal, it connects contrasting forms of maternal expression, female independence and identity.
Meredith is the least developed of the characters, but Crutcher communicates her shy curiosity as she draws out her aunt and listens to how she broke away from a conventional family, a process that began with her decision to stop straightening her hair. Meredith notes, with quiet accusation, that Maria, like many white adoptive parents of black children, didn’t know how to care for her hair when she was little. As it moves toward its hopeful yet bittersweet final notes, the film makes subtly clear that Meredith’s awakening is creating a fissure in her relationship with Maria.
For the central characters — excluding the exceedingly grounded Violet — there’s a seething undercurrent seeking release. That fury is brought into particularly sharp focus after Maria endures an intrusive visit from a former colleague (Sami Allison) who’s all nosy chatter and ulterior motive. Maria’s revelatory response is a chirpily scathing passage of voiceover, a counterpart of sorts to the micro-fiction that Violet writes in a calm, steady hand. In a few well-chosen words, they each get to the confused and aching heart of things, as does this deceptively quiet film.
Production companies: Serf Films, Self-Reliant Film
Cast: Katerina Stoykova, Joan Brannon, Meredith Crutcher, Jamie Hickman, Sami Allison, Taylor Frederick
Directors-screenwriters: S. Cagney Gentry, Thom Southerland
Producers: S. Cagney Gentry, Thom Southerland, Paul Harrill
Executive producers: Naomi Uechi, Mark Greene, Dan Klemer, Clay Cline, Simeon Kondev
Directors of photography: S. Cagney Gentry, Thom Southerland
Production designer: Naomi Uechi
Editor: Thom Southerland
Composers: David Thor Jonsson, Charles Gansa
In English, Bulgarian