It seems Steven Soderbergh is a filmmaker who never will forget his indie roots.
The Academy Award-winning director of “Traffic,” “Erin Brockovich” and “Ocean’s Eleven” is back with his latest low-budget experiment, one meant to gauge audience appetites for near-simultaneous release on screen, TV and DVD.
“Bubble” is a fine little movie, a stark, minimalist drama of the mundane that takes a frightening turn into tragedy, events and revelations hitting with all the more wallop for the serene, humdrum way Soderbergh lets them unfold.
The cast of nonprofessional actors, shooting around their home turf along the Ohio-West Virginia state line, propels the story with great poise and authenticity, truly creating the illusion that we’re eavesdropping on their sad, lonely working-class lives.
On its surface, “Bubble” is sort of an “abstinence, fibs and digital video” cousin to “sex, lies and videotape,” the more explicitly themed first film that vaulted Soderbergh to fame.
Yet “Bubble” proves a tale of deeper, darker deception because it exists in a world of recognizably dreary everyday life, where the power to shock is so much greater for the sheer ordinariness of things.
The first 10 minutes of this taut film, which runs only an hour and a quarter, establishes the commonplace lives of Martha (Debbie Doebereiner, in real life a recently retired manager of a KFC restaurant) and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley, who is studying to become a computer technician).
Fortysomething Martha is old enough to be Kyle’s mother, yet the two have forged a quiet, sturdy friendship based on mutual loneliness and a simple need to connect with another human at the doll factory where they work.
Kyle lives with his mom, Martha tends to her elderly father at home. Martha picks Kyle up in the morning, they stop for doughnuts, discuss dreams of beach vacations over lunch, and she drops him off at his second job at night.
Bursting this unassuming bubble is Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins, a hairdresser in real life), a single mother who comes to the work at the doll factory, begins a flirtation with shy Kyle and imposes on Martha by asking for favors here and there.
Without ever letting go of the drowsy, deliberate pace established at the outset, Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough (who previously collaborated with the director on the low-budget, improvisational experiment “Full Frontal”) introduce a horrific twist.
The remainder of “Bubble” peels back the veneer of somber order that guides Martha and Kyle’s relationship, exposing murky shadows and hinting at motivations about which even they are unaware.
An alternate ending included on the DVD offers a tidy, rational explanation for all that happens, but Soderbergh wisely left it out of the film — the sequence so painfully literal it would have spoiled what proves an ambiguously poetic conclusion.
Like the story, the filmmaking is deceptively simple. At first glance, “Bubble” could be a Sundance Film Festival entry from a promising first-time director.
But the minutiae, the painstaking detail — creepy tableaux of dolls’ heads, lingering shots of inanimate objects that take on import later, tiny moments of magical realism — all are signs of cunning orchestration by a seasoned conductor.
The three key actors, along with real-life police detective Decker Moody as a quietly resolute cop, are so credibly deadpan their exchanges feel real. Doebereiner dominates the film, injecting Martha with a sincere mix of sadness, monotony, jealousy and disillusionment tempered by hope and joy over the few highlights in her life.
She’s such a natural, Doebereiner might consider a second career as a character actress, now that KFC is behind her.
The bleak action is suitably accompanied by austere solo guitar sketches by Robert Pollard, formerly of the band Guided By Voices — repetitive yet catchy chords whose melancholy suit the film’s mood.
This is the first of six films Soderbergh plans to shoot on digital video for release at the same time in theaters, on the HDNet cable channel and on DVD, a small test case for the potential future of film distribution, in which movies could be released simultaneously in all formats.
“Bubble” will air on TV Friday night, the same day it debuts theatrically, though the DVD does not come out until Tuesday since that’s the traditional home-video release day, or so say the producers. That seems a tad dubious, because distributors do occasionally shift the DVD release day for marketing reasons; the producers may be hedging their bets a bit on this first foray, worried that if the DVD were out the same day, it could cannibalize the film’s opening-weekend prospects in theaters.