Ironically after a fatal collision sends reckless Carl Lee (John Heard) to jail, it’s his old resilient pickup truck that’s in the least need of repair. Instead, unlike the steel metal of his vehicle, it’s the humans affected—namely his family—that are the most in need of healing. As we learn in writer/director/editor Brian Jun’s feature length filmmaking debut Steel City, the trauma from the crash which found an unfortunate motorist dead simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time spirals out from the road and into the Alston, Illinois buildings and lives occupied by both the locked up Carl Lee as well as the relatives he’s left behind.
This is all the more apparent in the case of Carl Lee’s only regular visitor, his son PJ (a terrific Thomas Guiry) who, having survived the crash which sent his father to jail, struggles to cope with the aftershocks and secrecy involved in that particular incident that seems to magnify a childhood filled with repressed “accidents” before his mother (Laurie Metcalfe) decided to divorce Carl and start a life with a kind police officer (James McDaniel).
Although PJ seems content to stay in denial of the dysfunction in his youth, when director Jun switches the film’s focus onto his older, unhappily married, philandering brother Ben (a menacing Clayne Crawford), after just a few scenes we realize in light of two very different characterizations how having Carl Lee for a father has manifested in the cool gazes and detached personalities of the two men who seem to have only DNA in common with one another.
Unwilling to admit he’s self-sabotaging his relationship with his girlfriend Amy (America Ferrera) whose appearance he criticizes behind her back, soon PJ gets fired from his job working in a restaurant and fearing he’ll lose his home, looks up his long-absent Uncle Vic (Independent Spirit Award nominated Raymond J. Barry), who helps his nephew get back on his feet and in the process enlightens PJ to some of the dark secrets lurking in the family’s past.
Intriguingly Vic’s revelations seem to be the tip of the iceberg when Jun surprises audiences with a genuine shock late into the picture to help explain the vague motives of two key characters, however despite this twist, the bleak, hopeless characters living in the shadows of missed opportunities and failure does drain on the viewer throughout. Still, Steel City marks an incredible, mature and deft filmmaking achievement for helmer Jun, just in his twenties and one that-- in spite of the unceasingly gray color scheme and characters whom we can’t imagine wanting to spend any time with in reality for longer than a minute-- boasts an astute, atmospheric sense of time and place, earning it a Grand Jury Prize nomination at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival.