Newcomers stand out in understated ‘Darker’

If the Oscar-winning “Once” opened the door for such a thing as an indie musical, “I Used to Be Darker” tiptoes quietly inside the subgenre.

And maybe “indie musical” is a misleading description of this admirable film, but it’s better than “critically acclaimed Sundance hit” — although that one’s accurate, too.

We begin with a teenage girl from Northern Ireland, Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who needs a place to crash after her wild American summer hits a serious snag. She rings up her Aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) in Baltimore, but the timing is bad: At this moment, Kim is moving out on her husband Bill (Ned Oldham).

Their daughter Abby (Hannah Gross), an aspiring actress, is happy to see Taryn but nursing some major resentment against her mother. Kim’s a singer, still gigging and going on the road; Bill has sacrificed his own musical career because he has to pay the mortgage.

A handful of musical numbers emerge from the storyline, which director and co-writer Matthew Porterfield (“Putty Hill”) — he prefers the unbroken-take method of shooting these performances — uses to suggest the characters’ need to create art out of unhappiness, to give order to the otherwise clumsy encounters captured here.

In the case of a quiet solo guitar number that Bill sings to himself in his lonely basement, the sequence has a surprise finish that is also the only logical conclusion for Bill at that moment.

Porterfield’s observations about human behavior are sharp, but he doesn’t underline how sharp.

He lets the long-take method define dialogue scenes, too; there’s a painful sequence between Kim and Bill as they sit at a table and work through an entirely recognizable succession of anger, connection, resentment and more anger, all in the space of three minutes or so.

Taylor and Oldham are musicians making their film-acting debuts here, and their plainspoken style with dialogue is as authentic as their way with singing.

Based on all this, it will come as no great shock that “I Used to Be Darker” is content to leave major plot points to remain unresolved and let music stand in for story beats (as does a Shakespeare recitation, the closest the movie comes to playing a chord too hard).

Encountering a song like Taylor’s haunting “American Child,” embedded in the midst of this knotty human mix-up, is resolution enough.

“I Used to Be Darker” (3 stars)

A family’s domestic issues are explored in this low-key study, which uses the occasional song (the estranged spouses are musicians) to further its minimalist story along. A quietly fine movie, with first-time actors Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham very believable.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, language.

Showing: Sundance.

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