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A Film Worth Exploring, Whatever the Medium

Subtitled "Another Steven Soderbergh Experience," Bubble, a drama/mystery centered on a loose romantic triangle, is the first of six modestly budgeted films under Steven Soderbergh's (Ocean's Eleven, Traffic, Out of Sight), HDNet Films banner. HDNet will release films simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on cable television. It's the start of what Soderbergh and his backers hope will be become the standard for delivering films, specifically lower-budgeted films that would otherwise receive limited theatrical distribution or, if released solely on DVD, would be overlooked by critics and audiences.

Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged woman who home cares her elderly father (Omar Cowan), works at the local doll factory, one of the few employers left in their economically depressed town. She, along with Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), her younger co-worker and friend, lead lives of quiet desperation. Kyle, a taciturn, high school dropout, lives with his mother, ostensibly to save money to one day purchase a car. Although Martha obviously harbors romantic feelings toward Kyle, they remain unexpressed, with the exception of an awkward moment where she forces Kyle to pose for a picture because, as she unconvincingly says, he's her best friend and she should have a photo of him.

Rose (Misty Wilkins), a young, attractive single-mother and a new employee at the doll factory, becomes the third member of the loose triangle. Martha accepts her, but only grudgingly, quickly seeing Rose as a threat to her fragile relationship with Kyle. Rose and Kyle, both smokers, begin to share time in the smoke room, which automatically excludes Martha, a non-smoker. As Kyle draws closer to Rose, Martha's resentment grows, as do doubts about Rose's past. Martha, however, agrees to baby-sit Rose's daughter while Rose goes out on a date. What seems like an innocent date turns unpleasant when Rose's ex-boyfriend and the father of her daughter, Jake (Kyle Smith), appears at Rose's doorstep as Rose returns from her date.

Bubble then takes a turn from observational drama to police procedural that introduces a new character to the mix, Detective Taylor (Decker Moody). Soderbergh, however, spends little time on the investigation. Instead, Soderbergh foregrounds Martha's emotional turmoil and ultimately, the fallout from an unpremeditated act of violence. In Martha, Soderbergh and his screenwriter Coleman Hough have created a lonely, isolated, unadventurous woman without a future, or at least a future without the faintest glimmer of a personally fulfilling life.

To his credit, Soderbergh almost succeeds in creating an effective, moving character study of small town lives under emotional pressure, but his decision to use a non-professional cast makes sympathetic identification with the characters, including Martha, a difficult proposition. That he found and directed an affecting, if at times uneven, performance from Debbie Doebereiner is nothing short of remarkable. Her awkward line readings help to convey the inner life of a character worn down by a lifetime of disappointments and disillusionment. The same or better can be said for Misty Wilkins as Rose. Wilkins shows promise as an actress. The same, however, can't be said for Dustin James Ashley as Kyle. His garbled, mumbled line deliveries make him nearly impossible to understand.

Style wise, Soderbergh takes a minimalist approach, using static shots and the occasional whip pan to follow a car moving across a road or landscape. Soderbergh was obviously limited by working on location, both for interiors and exteriors (which necessarily limit set-ups), but uses these limitations to his advantage to create an almost documentary-like realism. Soderbergh's style shares an affinity with the Italian Neo-Realists (and the work of French filmmaker Robert Bresson) who made their most influential films during the 1940s and 1950s. The Neo-Realists focused on documenting the social and economic conditions found in post-World II Europe. Soderbergh seems to want to do the same for America's heartland, circa 2006. Soderbergh, however, breaks from his rigorously minimalist approach in two scenes, one of Martha in church (crosses are quietly ubiquitous in Bubble) and later, when Martha has an epiphany imbued with the stark realization that her self-image didn't (and doesn't) match her past behavior. Both scenes are quietly, poignantly moving.

Ultimately, Bubble stands out as a tragedy in a minor key, a minor work from probably the most interesting filmmaker of his generation. Whatever can be said of Soderbergh at this point in his career, he's certainly not afraid to take risks dramatically or financially. If Bubble is any indication, Soderbergh's future endeavors under the HDNet Films banner will be worth seeking out, whatever the medium.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars