Steel City

Writer-director Biran Jun's debut feature is a slow but ultimately rewarding character-driven drama about a demographic rarely seen even in the outré world of independent film: Middle-American, working-class men. Though still in his early 20s, PJ Lee (Thomas Guiry) is already on his own and almost out of options. His divorced mother, Marianne (Laurie...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Writer-director Biran Jun's debut feature is a slow but ultimately rewarding character-driven drama about a demographic rarely seen even in the outré world of independent film: Middle-American, working-class men.

Though still in his early 20s, PJ Lee (Thomas Guiry) is already on his own and almost out of options. His divorced mother, Marianne (Laurie Metcalf), has remarried a, East Alton, Illinois, police officer named Randall (James McDaniel) and started a new life for herself along with Randall's young son -- a life that doesn't really include PJ. PJ's father, Carl Lee (John Heard), left his family when PJ was still a boy, only to return when PJ was already an adult. PJ had been living in Carl's house, but Carl is currently in jail awaiting trial for vehicular manslaughter and has left PJ nothing but his old damaged truck and a lot of unpaid bills. The water and electricity has been cut off and PJ is about to lose the house to the bank. In many ways, PJ's older brother, Ben (Clayne Crawford), is even worse off. Ben has a job at the local steel mill and is married with a kid, but he's been doing his best to lose it all by screwing around at work and cheating on his wife (Jamie Anne Brown) with a local bartender (Heather McComb). Both PJ and Ben blame their father's early departure for their problems, but while PJ has made his peace with his father's negligence -- he now visits him regularly in the county jail -- Ben is still angry, and this unresolved anger is threatening to destroy him. When PJ is fired from his job as a busboy at a local restaurant for his bad attitude, Carl suggest he talk to Ben about getting a job at the mill. But PJ refuses to fall into the same trap that has sucked the life out of so many men in this steel town -- besides, it's a union job -- so unbeknownst to PJ, Carl contacts his brother, Vic (a well-cast Raymond J. Barry), a retired carpenter and Vietnam vet who still has some connections in the construction business. Vic calls in a favor and gets PJ a job with a construction crew that specializes in fire-damaged homes. PJ hates the work and despises Uncle Vic's house rules, and it's not long before he starts screwing up. Vic takes him to task for his inability to commit to any kind of adult responsibility -- PJ won't even call Amy (American Ferrera), a waitress from the restaurant whom he clearly likes, as his "girlfriend" -- because Vic sees what PJ can't: PJ's set repeat every mistake that made his father a failure to both his family and himself.

There have been a lot of films about twentysomething boy-men who are unable to find themselves, but while they're often seen working dead-end jobs, rarely have they been portrayed as even remotely blue collar. Jun doesn't attempt to tie the inner lives of his strictly working-class characters to their external economic circumstances -- life in this unnamed steel town may be hard, but it doesn't seem to have much to do with the state of U.S. industry -- and dwells entirely on family history. It's a sensitive, I'm-man-enough-to-cry kind of drama, but Jun and his fine cast's real achievement is that it never turns weepy or maudlin. It's simply a quiet yet strongly told story about how it's never to late to stop oneself from making a mistake in the present, or start making up for the mistakes of the past.

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  • Released: 2007
  • Rating: R
  • Review: Writer-director Biran Jun's debut feature is a slow but ultimately rewarding character-driven drama about a demographic rarely seen even in the outré world of independent film: Middle-American, working-class men. Though still in his early 20s, PJ Lee (… (more)

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