Bubble, the first movie of Steven Soderbergh’s six picture deal with Mark Cuban’s HDNet, is a two-pronged experiment in both distribution and technique. On the business side, it’s the first film to have a deliberately orchestrated simultaneous release in theaters, on cable television and on DVD. Soderbergh and others believe that the DVD “window,” the period of time between a film’s theatrical release and its home video release, is inexorably shrinking to nothing. Others, especially some in the movie theater industry, think that this window is rather vital to their business model and that Soderbergh is full of it. This led more than a few theater chains to boycott this film because of its simultaneous DVD release.
Frankly, I think they’re being a little too paranoid. I doubt that blockbuster films like King Kong or the upcoming Superman movie are ever going to shrink the window down completely. For small, independent films like Bubble, however, the strategy probably makes a great deal of sense. Bubble is about as far from a mainstream Hollywood-style film as you can get and, under the normal way of doing things, would probably only see a brief theatrical run in art house theaters clustered around big cities. This method allows people to see the movie at the same time regardless of their preferred venue.
Creatively, Soderbergh’s approach to Bubble was to go into a region or town not normally seen in high-visibility movies and use local talent to populate the cast. The female lead’s last “role” was as the manager of the local KFC. A young woman’s baby is actually played by the actress’s young son. Officers Anderson, Morris and Smeeks are played by police officers named Anderson, Morris and Smeeks.
The story focuses on three people going through the motions of working dead-end jobs in a doll factory. Kyle (Dustin Ashley), a high school drop-out, works the molding machine during the day while cleaning floors at the shovel factory at night. Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a matronly 40-year-old caring for an invalid father, paints the heads and installs the eyes. When the factory gets a large order, they bring in a young single mother named Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins) to assist in Martha’s area.
Martha and Kyle seem to be the only friend the other has, despite the difference in their ages. Martha seems to enjoy how much Kyle, who doesn’t have a car, depends on her. When Rose appears on the scene and there’s an immediate attraction between her and Kyle, Martha seems to take an instant dislike to the new girl. It’s not enough, however, for Martha to refuse to accept money from Rose to baby-sit her son while she and Kyle go out on a date. This puts Martha in a position to witness a violent argument between Rose and her ex-boyfriend (Kyle Smith).
Soderbergh’s camera stands back from the action, always the neutral observer and never commenting on the action or otherwise editorializing. The performances that the director extracted from his inexperience cast are unforced and natural. Particularly effective is Decker Moody as the detective called in when Rose turns up murdered. As a detective in real life, Moody knows something about the way such people talk and act. He seems nothing like the detectives we’re used to seeing in films and on TV, but if you’ve ever watched The First 48 or any of the other crime shows on A&E, you realize that he’s hitting every note perfectly.
For those weaned on standard Hollywood fare, Bubble is going to seem interminably boring. It’s a film you have to watch actively. If you are willing to put forward the effort, however, you might find it hard to look away from its unvarnished portrayal of quietly desperate lives.