The Lees are a family in crisis in Brian Jun’s “Steel City.” Carl Lee (John Heard) is in jail for his role in a fatal traffic accident, but the disintegration began some 15 years ago, when he walked out on his wife and two sons. Now he must do what he can to reconnect with his children, to salvage what’s left of the family before it’s too late for him.
The emotional stakes are high and every character is at risk in this piercing, respectable blue-collar drama. At the center is Carl’s son PJ (Tom Guiry), who was in the truck with him at the time of the accident and is haunted by it. PJ is maybe 20 years old, works as a bus boy at a restaurant, wants to be a police officer like his mom’s second husband Randall (James McDaniel). But he is mired in indecision, his growth stunted even further by this latest turn of events. Can he really escape the confines of his anonymous working-class town?
PJ’s older brother, Ben (Clayne Crawford), doesn’t offer much inspiration. He’s a bitter bully who doesn’t acknowledge Dad’s existence. He’s married to Maria (Jamie Anne Brown), but cheats on her with a bartender named Lucy (Heather McComb). He works in the town’s steel mill, a situation PJ is trying to avoid for himself.
With Dad in jail and the bills not being paid at the house, PJ goes to live with Dad’s brother, Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry). Vic gets PJ a job and regards the listless young man with a mixture of pity and compassion. He punctuates his kindliness with bluntness, but his crinkly old blue eyes give him away as a good man who appreciates the importance of family ties.
And so here are these people — I should also mention the boys’ mother, Marianne (Laurie Metcalf), and PJ’s tentative new girlfriend Amy (America Ferrera) — all spokes on a wheel whose hub is Carl Lee, a good man who has made many mistakes in his life. Writer/director Brian Jun portrays them honestly (albeit with one too many acoustic-guitar-accompanied montages), and uses the claustrophobia of the unnamed dead-end town the film is set in to great advantage. There’s a palpable sense of frustration among the primary characters as they wonder whether this is all there is, and whether they can be happy with it anyway. (Ryan Samul’s stark, grim cinematography helps. The weather always seems overcast in this town, even indoors.)
The performances are good because they don’t over-reach. No one is gunning for an Oscar here. There is a natural cohesion to the cast, everyone working together to present a sturdy, emotionally powerful drama. Whether the ending is “happy” or “sad” is irrelevant. It’s cathartic just to be along for the ride.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; )