The tagline for this independent film calls it "another Steven Soderbergh experience," which, at least in terms of energy level and pacing, is hardly going to be confused with the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Soderbergh himself calls "Bubble" an "experiment," but I'm guessing the Screen Actor's Guild has another word for a film that uses only non-professional actors.
The director of "Traffic" has always been fascinated with the idea of slipping in a few non-professionals among his actors, so it probably seemed like the final step for him. He shot in a real small town on the Ohio/West Virginia border, in a real doll factory, using real people from the area. And just to make sure this cinema had verite, he required his three principle "non-actors" to work for one week at the factory to get a feel for their jobs.
Anyone who's ever lived in a small town will walk away from this saying that it's dead-on authentic: the excruciatingly slow pace and the almost numbing existence of day-to-day life, working in a town where nothing much happens and, as a result, there's nothing much to talk about. With the absence of education, conversations are shallow and secret desires grow faster than the tax base. So yes, "Bubble" feels like a true cinema verite sampling of small-town life.
The question for movie-lovers and critics to ponder or debate is whether Soderbergh's film would have been significantly different (for better or for worse) had Kathy Bates played Martha, an overweight air-brush and glue artist who works on the final details on the faces of the dolls before the heads are attached to the bodies, instead of non-actor Debbie Doebereiner. Or if Casey Affleck had played Kyle, the exceptionally quiet young man who lives with his mother and works with the plastic molds, instead of non-actor Dustin James Ashley. Or if Amy Adams had played the divorced mom who's added to the small factory work-force and inadvertently comes between "best friends" Martha and Kyle, instead of non-actor Misty Wilkins.
Certainly, there's the recognizability factor when we see a face that we remember from other films, and that takes away from the sense of authenticity. But, at least to a degree, don't the best actors make us forget their professional pasts with each new outing? Then there's the authenticity factor of giving non-actors the basic situation and letting them go through the scenes ad-libbing without written lines.
In his commentary, Soderbergh says that the biggest challenge working with non-actors is that they can't memorize lines with any precision, so he has to shoot with two or three cameras simultaneously because retakes would present continuity problems. And to get the best results with non-actors, Soderberg said he had to stick with one or two takes. When they got around take-five, the non-actors began to feel self-conscious, and either tried too hard or it all became so familiar to them that something was lost. I can attest to that, having been asked to play a professor in a student film. My acting method was "the snowflake approach"--no two takes alike--and I tended to flub or forget lines the more times these kids kept saying, "That was great. Let's do it again" (Damn those making-of bonus features that are making directors out of just about anybody these days!).
There's also the question of how valuable pure authenticity is. I can sit in the corner of a local pharmacy and watch the pharmacist work all day long, and after just a short while he'll forget I'm there. What I see is reality, but is it entertaining reality? Writer Coleman Hough seems fascinated by life's minutiae--by the little things that complicate our lives. He and Soderbergh worked together on "Full Frontal," concerning a group of Hollywood denizens and their daily lives that lead up to a birthday party, and they do it again here with better results.
The through-line is simple and subtle: we see the drudgery of Martha and Kyle's lives, as well as their similar situations. He's living with his couch-potato, out-of-work mom; she's living with her ailing father and taking care of his needs. Kyle doesn't have a car, so Martha takes him to and from work every day. In a town where work and home-life are so provincial, that makes Kyle her "best friend"--good enough for her to take a picture of him while they're having a treat together at a local eatery. There are long takes that show the drudgery of their factory days, though Soderbergh shoots objectively, so we really don't know what any of the characters are thinking. We can only guess.
Life becomes complicated when Rose comes to town. Martha can see that Kyle is interested in her, and vice versa. After all, how many reasonably attractive people their age are there in a small town? Soon she's asking for favors too: first a ride from Rose, then babysitting. It's that evening of babysitting that pushes everything to a climax. Martha is shocked to see that Kyle is the reason Rose needs a babysitter, and just as stunned to watch Rose's ex-husband, Jake (non-actor K. Smith) enter the apartment and confront her.
The cover copy says, "When a murder investigation begins, it calls into question established assumptions about these characters and life in their small town." But frankly, there's not much of an investigation here, and "Bubble" isn't much of a whodunit. Most viewers will be quick to assume who did what to whom. But Soderbergh really didn't seem interested in doing anything more than showing how quietly and uneventfully things operate in a small town--even when there's a murder.
The 1080p Hi-Def picture is sharp and plenty detailed, though on smaller screens I suspect it will look a bit murky because of the 2.40:1 aspect ratio and the deliberately dingy color scheme and set design . . . if, in fact, any sets were designed. Call it set selection, perhaps. It's not a blow-you-away picture by any means, but there's no noticeable grain.
The audio is no great shakes, though. It has the same sound as an amateur video, with apparently no great number of boom mikes used. Or maybe we just notice because there are so many silences and pauses in the film where the only sound we hear is the sound of a small town being filmed. Only when the acoustic guitar kicks in-the only music or sound effects in the film-do we hear the English 3.0-Dolby Digital, DTS.
Film students and would-be filmmakers will appreciate the commentary track, mainly because Mark Romanek interviews the director and asks one intelligent question after the other. Soderbergh is also candid in his responses, and there's a lot here for people fascinated with the idea of making their own "non-actor" film. The only other bonus feature, though, is one of these alleged "showcase" scene indexes which takes you to Blu-ray "highlights." Come on, people. Who cares? Those of us who are watching Blu-ray already have Blu-ray. Stop trying to sell us!
"Bubble" is a true example of cinema verite that captures the essence of small-town life using non-actors. Apparently this was an experiment for Soderbergh, but I would think that the real experiment would be to film "Bubble" again using actors and stage sets so that we can all compare the results. Which one is the most effective, given an acceptable range of authenticity?