Calling “Neptune” an authentic Maine film is both correct and inadequate. The coming-of-age tale of a young girl, Hannah (Jane Ackerman) preparing to leave the tiny Maine island where she’s lived her whole life as the ward of a stern priest (Tony Reilly), the visually stunning “Neptune” doesn’t seem set in Maine as much as it emerges through it.
The film’s island setting (actually an amalgam of carefully chosen locations from around the state) is rendered by director Derek Kimball (and cinematographers Dean Merrill and Jayson Lobozzo) in lushly composed visuals that are dreamy, yet precise. Boats land at docks that cling precariously to the rocky coast, their paths swallowed immediately by the thick woods.
The church where Hannah lives with Reilly’s Jerry stands white and angular like an erupting tooth, the tiny A-frame shed where she often camps out looks as if it’s merely the tip of a larger structure being swallowed by the earth. A secluded house appears to have no path to its front door through the engulfing bushes.
Startlingly vivid underwater shots merge into the girl’s dream sequences as she imagines the fate of a friend who drowns in the opening scene of the film, gradually revealing a massive image as poetically beautiful as it is mysterious and unnerving.
When Hannah hires on as assistant to the dead boy’s lobsterman father (Bill McDonough), their trips on his small boat are convincing to the last detail – even as their growing bond lends each action resonance beyond mere verisimilitude.
The actors all excel at expressing a lot through very little, and the script (by Kimball and Matthew Konkel, with “additional material” by Douglas Milliken and Matthew Brown) subverts expectations nicely throughout.
As Jerry, Reilly is rigid, but not a caricature, the priest’s personal prejudices warring with his genuine love for his charge. And McDonough’s Herb is a little masterpiece of understatement, his grief and frustrations conveyed in subtle actions that have less to do with his conception as “taciturn Mainer” than with the hard lessons of a lifetime’s disappointment.
Dylan Chestnutt imbues the local “bad boy” (who was present at the boy’s death) with an unpredictable energy. And in the central and demanding role of Hannah, Ackerman is just right, too, the girlish openness of her face hardening and softening as her last summer on the island teaches her difficult lessons about what life can be.
Kimball (whose “Are You the Walkers?” remains the best of the annual, Maine-made “Damnationland” short films) may be tired of hearing the comparison to the films of director Terrence Malick (“Tree Of Life,” “Days Of Heaven”), but, like the ruminative Malick, “Neptune” places its characters deep in their environment, and who they are merges with where they come from – and where they long to be.
The deliberate, meticulous “Neptune” isn’t easy to categorize, which might make it a hard sell. Except that watching a film as assured in what it wants to be is uniquely rewarding.
The Portland premiere of “Neptune” will take place on May 14 at the Nickelodeon Cinema (patriotcinemas.com) for details. Shows are at 6:30 and 9 p.m., and I strongly suggest Maine film fans come out to see it.
COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS
SPACE GALLERY, Portland | space538.org
Monday and Tuesday: “Heaven Adores You.” The short life of singer-songwriter Elliot Smith is the subject of this documentary, which promises to be as melancholy and beautiful as the late Smith’s songs.
NICKELODEON CINEMA, Portland | patriotcinemas.com
Friday: “5 Flights Up.” Call it “nice” if you must, but this tale of an elderly couple who decide to list their suddenly valuable Brooklyn artists’ apartment for sale stars Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton as the longtime lovebirds. That’s just too adorable a combination to dismiss, people.