First, 12-year-old Emma’s (Audrey Grace Marshall) grandfather, her guardian, dies. Then, she bounces to Jessie (Dominique Johnson), her mother, with whom she spends a couple of days spelunking (together, they stare down a daft suitor of Jessie), makes snow angels on a frozen pond and revels. Next, Jessie overdoses and ends up in a coma, though Emma just thinks she’s sleeping in. Left with nothing but her cat, Emma retreats to the pond, alone, where the pair of snow angels are still printed on the ice. And that was just a few days of her winter break.
“Small Time,” a coming-of-age story from writer-director-cinematographer Niav Conty is unrelenting, its honesty very nearly nauseating. Emma is an island of sobriety, uninfected by the opioid epidemic claiming everyone around her. She’s ensconced in her childhood, but she’s not impervious to squalor. Her child’s curiosity punctures the weak attempts at sanitization, the smoothing over of the chaos around her. Bit by bit, reality beats down her innocence until one day she’s wearing makeup, dealing drugs out of a diner booth and trying to rip her hand away from a man 40 years her senior.
For the most part, Conty, who also coedited and produced the film, dodges the usual indie pitfalls: gratuity, lingering, faux rumination, showboating. The cast of characters is head-spinning, revolving so quickly it’s sometimes difficult to learn who the players are. Emma flits through spheres as a free spirit, adding to the uncanny at play. A child can move freely through such a whirlwind — she goes where the world leads her — but, for the viewer, the faces come to lack definition.
That ambiguity is only enhanced by Conty’s camera’s fluid relationship with perspective. In one moment it is an observer, then Emma, then the background, becoming tooled to capture uniquely childlike behavior. There’s Emma on a motorcycle, then the camera, as Emma, looks down at the shadows flying by on the pavement and the trees and telephone wires doing the same overhead. That particular style complicates Emma’s confusion. She’s navigating religion, diversity, addiction and childhood with uncertain filters — does she believe in god or is she only doing what she’s told?
The performances, bar Marshall and a stunning Maria Hansen as Sadie, Emma’s grandmother, are modestly washed out, most resonating less than they are pawns pushing the plot in, out and around Emma’s life. While Conty’s script isn’t staggeringly meandering, it wanders carefree as a child does. One scene finds Emma balancing on a train track to kill time. It must go somewhere, we’re meant to think, but Emma is nowhere, and somewhere is a universe away.
Elsewhere, Emma tells a social worker that she and her dad, Lonnie (Kevin Loreque) spent the walk to school talking about terrorists. Lonnie, just one of the troubled father figures in Emma’s life, served in the Middle East. Back in rural Pennsylvania, he spends most of his time masquerading as a teenager, except he puts guns under pillows and drinks before school starts. To him, Emma and the viewer, the government is nothing but a cold and distant entity.
Shrewdly, Conty constructs a narrative on dueling domestic failures without textually invoking race. In rural Pennsylvania, diversity is as foreign as the “terrorists” the film’s nativists bemoan. The juxtaposition, carried out with narrative negative space, does not ignore or excuse racism — it is very present — but exhumes a humanitarian and educational crisis from underneath America’s back stoop. “Small Time” peels back politics, demanding to know why opportunity is increasingly an illusion.
Yet, despite its baldfaced brutality and challenges to assumptions, “Small Time” can scarcely confront its most damning conclusion — hopefully, tantalizingly leaving Emma’s future hanging. The help that Emma needs isn’t coming, though; she’ll wake up pent-up every morning, waiting for her world to improve. The deflating reality that “Small Time” alludes to is that Emma is destined for a life filled with the pain she grew up feeling secondhand.
Dominic Marziali covers film. Contact him at [email protected].