At the time of its release, the idea of Bubble opening in theaters, on demand and on DVD simultaneously was heretical—little more than the madcap machinations of Mark Cuban and Todd Wagner’s then ridiculous-seeming vision for the future of art house cinema. In the ensuing ten years, such film releases have become far more commonplace. But while the marketing behind Steven Soderbergh’s experimental picture has been aped (and improved upon) since, the ethos behind the film itself remains something of an outlier.

Fresh off the strangely meta misfire of Ocean’s Twelve, Soderbergh returned to his indie roots with this off-the-beaten path attempt at cinéma vérité. Shot along the Ohio River, in drab West Virginia towns so barren as to suggest a passive-aggressive apocalypse, Bubble is a straightforward slice-of-life picture starring non-actors that metamorphoses into one of the most stirring crime dramas of the 2000s. The film chronicles the convenient workplace friendship between Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), a heavyset, middle-aged woman, and Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a rakish, monosyllabic stoner in his early twenties. The two work together at a doll factory. They engage in perpetual small talk, share their lunch hours and accompany one another on car rides, as Kyle pools along in Martha’s vehicle.

Their status quo is mundane, but quietly compelling, with the viewer whiffing the faint aroma of unrequited attraction to Kyle billowing off Martha in every interaction. Their outer lives are monotonous, mechanical, but even the paint-drying water cooler conversations they share drip with pungent subtext. Martha does most of the talking, but when she pauses to include Kyle, the imploring refrain of “what do you think?” reoccurs again and again, serving as the smalltown ennui-equivalent of Margot Kidder’s poem to Christopher Reeve in Richard Donner’s Superman. Their world is possessed by little more than work and overanalyzing tedious minutiae to fill the space between breaths.

Into their sullen yet stable little ecosystem, a new employee arrives to the doll factory. While very much fitting in with Soderbergh’s preferred aesthetic of regular-ass, non-movie seeming people, Rose (Misty Wilkins), by point of contrast, is like watching a fire erupt in an enclosed space. She’s just as broke, overworked and pasty as the rest of the cast, but there’s a mischievous spark in her eyes that immediately beguiles Kyle and sets Martha on notice. Rose is an interloper in every way.

She’s assigned to Martha’s department, airbrushing the doll heads, a delicate task at which she appears to be more skilled. Her positioning in Martha and Kyle’s lunchroom conversations effectively renders the usual empty prattling mute. Rose has had experiences. Rose still has aspirations. She speaks of wanting to leave this town for something better in a way that baffles Martha, who is content to work and care for her father day in, day out with little reward. This liveliness endears her to Kyle. Martha may ask what Kyle is thinking every chance she gets, but with Rose, what’s on his mind is clear from his face.

This new development reaches its insulting apex when Rose, having already intruded on Martha with a ride to her second job cleaning a more well-to-do person’s house, asks her to babysit one night so she can go out on a date. Of course, the date is with Kyle, a painful reveal that ruptures something in Martha’s mind. At first, the viewer is just as transfixed with Rose as Kyle is, because her very presence turns the film’s energy up the notch it desperately needs. But when we see her manipulating her way into Kyle’s bedroom to steal money from his sock drawer, while wearing a gold watch we last saw on a dresser in the house she cleans, it’s not too hard to side with Martha, even after it’s very clear Martha is the one behind Rose’s murder.

It’s that big paradigm shift that makes Bubble so special. With little warning, it transforms into a believable, compelling police procedural. Somehow it splits the difference between the kind of murder porn people love to binge on Investigation Discovery and a really endearing little Sundance drama. Reviews at the time were quick to savage the film for being so aggressively low-key, but it’s that lo-fi tenor that allows for such deep pathos. The dialogue, crafted from Soderbergh’s Full Frontal collaborator Coleman Hough, feels almost anti-dramatic, but through his cinematography and editing, the versatile auteur is able to wring maximum effect even from these untrained performers. He finds stomach-churning dread, heartbreaking epiphanies and disquieting lament, all in the valley between two raging seas of stolen glances.

This was meant to be the first in a series of similar films from Soderbergh, but the next entry in his six-picture deal with 2929 entertainment was 2009’s The Girlfriend Experience, a picture that evolved this style into something else entirely. He’s never revisited this particular approach to fiction, though strands of the method are apparent in his unconventional use of comedic performers in The Informant!. Not enough time seems to have passed for Bubble to have gained the respect it deserves as an interesting chapter in Soderbergh’s creative evolution, but it is definitely worth a second look. There’s much more lurking here than it’s purposely unadorned surface.

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