Grade: B+

It’s been the habit of Steven Soderbergh, who after all started in independent film, to cleanse his cinematic palate after directing big-budget rubbish like “Solaris” and the “Ocean’s” movies by returning to his much more modest roots. It hasn’t always worked out terribly well–“Full Frontal,” anyone?–but with “Bubble” he’s fashioned an almost ascetically plain portrait of small-town, working-class existence that turns abruptly into an inexplicable American tragedy (Dreiser among the proletariat). Made utterly without frills using non-professional actors, HD digital cameras, straightforward cinematography and authentic settings, it captures the pathetic ordinariness of its characters’ lives, and deaths, without condescension; yet it employs some startling techniques toward the close to indicate there’s more to what happens in this story than meets the eye. Some will argue that these closing moments give an overblown touch to the picture, an effort to add a transcendent feel to a tale that’s until then been resolutely, even ostentatiously earthbound. But even if that criticism is considered valid, it doesn’t alter the fact that for the most part, at least, this is a fascinating depiction of the proverbial lives of quiet desperation, lived unnoticed and always on the edge, and–one expects–all too common.

The central figure here is Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a middle-aged woman of ample size and helpful demeanor who works on the assembly line in a small doll factory on the Ohio-West Virginia border. She lives a very low-key life, serving as caretaker to her aged father in their modest home; her only real interest, it seems, is in her co-worker Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a darkly handsome but reserved and laconic youngster who lives with his mother in a trailer. He rides with Martha every day to the factory, and has taken on an extra job to save money for a car; she enjoys sharing a coffee-and-doughnut stop with him each morning, as well as a table in the vending-machine room at lunch. Their lived-in routine is altered by the factory’s hiring of Rose (Misty Wilkins), a flirtatious young woman, separated from the father of her daughter, who quickly hits up Martha for a few favors while chatting with Kyle and inviting him out for smokes after lunch. When Rose asks Martha to baby-sit for her one night while she goes out on a date, Martha’s surprised to learn that Kyle’s the one taking her out; and after Rose returns home, Martha witnesses an intrusion by her estranged ex, Jake (K. Smith) before leaving the shabby apartment; he accuses Rose of stealing from him. The next morning one of the characters is found dead, leading to a police investigation that has none of the drama of those in television procedurals. And while there’s initially a sliver of uncertainty about the killer, the identity is confirmed by the simplest of means. But while the “who” is revealed, the “why” remains obstinately obscure.

There’s a dour simplicity to Soderbergh’s work here (and Coleman Hough’s script) that’s both convincing and oddly unnerving. The flat dialogue, punctuated by not so pregnant pauses, and the deliberately bland, unvarying style of performance, with the leads and supporting players conveying a much greater sense of authenticity than professionals could ever have done, make for an absorbing portrait of people living from paycheck to paycheck and barely making ends meet–and help one to comprehend how even the most minor bumps in their routine can seem intolerable and bring explosions of rage. The plainness of the cinematography (ascribed to Peter Andrews, Soderbergh’s nom de camera), the found locations, and the use of natural light enhance the almost neo-realist look. The result is a picture that belies its ostensibly prosaic feel to give a touch of offbeat poetry to these deceptively humdrum lives.

Much will be made of the fact that “Bubble” represents a sort of revolution in film distribution: it’s being released simultaneously in theatres (by Magnolia Pictures, in Landmark cinemas throughout the country) and on cable television (on the HDNet Movies channel), and only a few days afterward on DVD. All that is well and good, but it wouldn’t matter much if the picture weren’t worth seeing in one way or another. As it happens, it is.