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An unvarnished look at working-class characters

Everyone carries a heavy slab of atonement in "Steel City ," a no-budget heartland drama that walks the thin line between kitchen-sink realism and kitchen-sink tedium. The movie was filmed in Illinois, but the setting's really Springsteen-land, particularly the working - class limbo of albums like "Nebraska."

Writer-director Brian Jun lacks the Boss's flair for melodrama, though, and in an odd way that's one of the film's strengths. Uninflected to the point of banality, "Steel City" also loves its characters with an honest, absolutely level gaze. It makes you realize how rarely movies portray the American underclass with anything close to the truth.

In a huddled, self-protective performance that grows in colors as it goes, Thomas Guiry plays PJ Lee , the 20-something son of a splintered family. His father , Carl (John Heard ) , abandoned him and his older brother , Ben (Clayne Crawford ) , when they were children, and although the old man has been back in town for some time, resentment still boils in both sons.

Ben, a rangy, hell-raising steelworker, takes it out by cheating on his wife (Jamie Anne Brown ) with a local barmaid (Heather McComb ). PJ just seethes shyly. He works a dead-end restaurant job and hides from everyone except a waitress (America Ferrera of "Ugly Betty" ) with whom he strikes up a touch-and-go relationship.

The father's in prison awaiting a hearing; exactly why -- and why it has PJ so torn up -- is the mystery that keeps the film's dramatic engine running. "Steel City" offers its young hero two possible role models: his mother's second husband (James McDaniel of "NYPD Blue" ), a cop who could get PJ into the police academy, and his father's brother Victor (Raymond J. Barry ), a gruff Vietnam vet with construction-industry connections. Both men genuinely want to help the kid, if he wants to help himself.

Maybe he doesn't, but the movie patiently bides its time until an unexpected third mentor emerges to help him figure it out. Jun wants to capture that time in a young man's life when he's his own worst enemy -- when the desire to do the right thing sends him running in the wrong direction. With his ragged blond hair and washed-out blue eyes, Guiry's PJ seems unexceptional in every way; you'd be hard - pressed to pick him out of a crowd. Ferrera's Amy forgives him his casual cruelties and so do we, since he obviously loves her and just as obviously needs to express it. He just doesn't know how yet.

It's a man's movie that aspires to a man's sort of grace; Heard is especially touching as the imprisoned Carl, purged of the fury that still plagues his sons. The filmmaking is as cheap as it gets, with camerawork that appears to have been shot using someone's cousin's mid-range video equipment, but that fits the lives Jun is exploring. "Steel City" may be the only movie released this year that's so observant you can hear what the characters aren't saying.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to movies/blog.


Steel City

Written and directed by: Brian Jun

Starring: Thomas Guiry , John Heard , America Ferrera , Raymond J. Barry , Clayne Crawford , James McDaniel

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 96 minutes

Rated: R (language, brief drug use)