Review: 'Steel City' a smart debut

Forgiveness comes at a premium in “Steel City,” the feature-length debut of promising young director Brian Jun, who seems to have a passion for the quiet desperation of small-town Americans, the kind of people John Mellencamp has built a career on. As in his short film “Researching Raymond Burke,” Jun trains his camera on working-class characters whose intentions are basically decent, even when their actions seem less so.

Once again he entrusts his lead to John Heard, an underappreciated character actor who perfectly captures the nuances of Carl Lee, a deadbeat dad seeking to make amends. It isn’t easy. Carl’s grown sons, Ben (Clayne Crawford) and P.J. (Thomas Guiry), are hesitant to accept him back into their troubled lives, even as he languishes in prison for a murder he may or may not have committed. Slowly, though, P.J. warms to his absentee father. Carl is lonely. P.J. is confused, adrift in life as he wanders aimlessly between jobs, homes and women.

Like most of the characters in “Steel City,” P.J. has a secret, one that threatens to shatter his veneer of collected cool, though it is not revealed until late in the movie. In the meantime, he struggles to maintain a fragile peace with his abrasive older brother (who himself is involved in a messy separation from his wife) and a healthy relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend (America Ferrera, of “Ugly Betty”), who is tiring of his reluctance to commit.

Familiar problems? In some cases, certainly, but Jun’s smart, insightful script keeps the action moving at an absorbing pace, and his cast is expertly chosen. Guiry, who has excelled in supporting roles in “Mystic River” and NBC’s “The Black Donnellys,” is once again impressive here, turning in an understated performance that succinctly betrays his character’s inner turmoil.

Still, the emotional anchor is Heard, who seems wearily resigned to his role as the black sheep of his estranged family. Branded a failure by his sons, his ex-wife (Laurie Metcalf) and even his own brother, the no-nonsense Vic (Raymond Barry), he earns some measure of redemption in the final act, but pays the heftiest of prices for his peace of mind.

Steel City ***½

Starring America Ferrera, Thomas Guiry, Clayne Crawford, John Heard, Laurie Metcalf

Written and directed by Brian Jun

Rated R

Running Time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

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