Have you ever people-watched out of boredom or pure curiosity? I have. How about watching people’s patterns and how they interact from day to day? Perhaps not so much, but you’ve likely seen some familiar faces and noticed some patterns as you go about your day. While it may be natural to be curious about the lives of strangers, Sarah Goodman’s award-winning first feature drama, Porch Stories, reveals that this passive observance can actually play an active role in our perception of the world and the stories we hear from our front porches (or balconies or benches, wherever you may be).
The intersecting lines between perspectives and our desire to see and watch what others do comes to the forefront in Porch Stories. While this kind of passive watching and listening may seem intrusive, the different levels at which Goodman portrays these perspectives simply comes across as a natural, albeit powerful look at how they can shape our view of the neighbourhoods surrounding us and informs us in the role of the observer.
At the film’s centre is Emma (Laura Barrett), a thirty-something, listless, creative type preparing to move to a new home with her fiancé, who’s devoting major time to his career. Enter Emma’s past love Gabriel (Jose Miguel Contreras) and now we have another story unfolding, with bits and pieces being revealed through conversations and glances. While Emma reunites with Gabriel and tensions begin to peak between her and her fiancé, Emma brings our attention to the watchful eyes of her Portuguese neighbours, which she perceives as irritating and rude. While innocently watching (though also passively judging Emma’s interactions), the couple bicker, also revealing small portions of their relationship through conversation and, oftentimes, non-glances. Finally, we have Emma’s next door neighbours, a sibling musical duo who take a more active role, watching Emma but also conversing with her. As is pretty evident at this point, there are a lot of layers and pairs of eyes to consider. (Side note: The indie musical talent in this film is a refreshing strong suit.)
I must admit that within the first few minutes of the film, I was worried I wouldn’t have much to say. The acting seemed a little awkward and I felt frustrated with not knowing more about each character’s story. When the credits started to roll, I still felt frustrated not knowing about everything that happened and my long list of “whys.” But as the film sank in, I started to think a little deeper (a sign, I guess, that I can sometimes be a lazy viewer). What’s amazing about this film is its ability to keep the audience within the boundaries of what can be seen or heard from one’s porch. While Goodman permits us to enter Emma’s house and reveals much more information about the characters inside that house than, say, the Portuguese couple would have access to, she does well to limit the information we receive.
Additionally, this brings subtle attention to the role of the audience in passively watching the characters’ stories play out and how we judge their actions based on our limited perspective. It’s these layers that truly make this film a thought-provoking masterpiece that did, at times, make me a little more conscientious in my interpretations. I became much more aware of my judgments once I understood this level and the fact that the effects of this film stretch beyond the screen. It’s not to say that we should be ashamed of our desire to overhear or see the stories of strangers unfold before us, as if we’re sticking our noses in someone else’s business—that’s not it at all. Instead, it brings attention to the fact that we’re constantly casting our gaze on other people, neighbours or otherwise, and that this gaze can shape the role we perceive them to be playing. It’s a complex notion, but a very important aspect to consider in film, particularly when portraying individuals or groups who can sometimes be pushed into boxes that limit their role through the common perception of that particular stereotype.
Simply put, Porch Stories is a brave, complex and thought-provoking experiment in how a viewer’s gaze shapes the world and the individuals whom they cast that gaze upon—it’s the surprising power behind seemingly passive perception.
PORCH STORIES begins screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on June 19, 2015. Visit the TIFF page for ticket information and screen times.