Once you get past the aggressively nostalgic opening scenes, it becomes clear that Diggers is more interested in character than plot.
The story's trigger is the passing of a crusty old fisherman -- he died with his fishing boots on -- but it's really an excuse to look at the passing of a way of life. A motley crew of clamdiggers and their families are firmly established to be living on the south shore of Long Island in the fall of 1976. Evil corporation South Shell is making life hard for the diggers.
Diggers is likable enough, with solid performances from its ensemble cast (Paul Rudd, Maura Tierney, Ron Eldard, Sarah Paulson, Lauren Ambrose, Ken Marino), and features at least one aspect of American family life that's too seldom examined.
The crusty old fisherman left behind two children: Hunt (Paul Rudd) and Gina (Maura Tierney). Hunt has followed in his father's footsteps with a certain degree of resentment, even while using him as an excuse. After all, Hunt is in his 30's, a full-grown man, yet lacking the self-confidence to explore his love of photography -- he's constantly snapping landscapes devoid of people -- or to maintain a romantic relationship. When he strikes up a friendship with a woman, it's with Zooey (Lauren Ambrose), a summertime fling that's bound to be short-lived.
His sister Gina married badly -- her ex is none too affectionately known as "Shithead" -- and has been living in her childhood home while working as a waitress at a local diner. She's more self-aware than Hunt; she accepts the consequences of her actions and nurtures a vague idea of how to make the most of her circumstances. She hesitates only briefly before plunging into an affair with playboy Jack (Ron Eldard); she's a bit tired of only doing "the right thing."
Their friends include Frankie (Ken Marino) and his wife Julie (Sarah Paulson), who manage a large, noisy brood of children. Frankie is desperately unhappy, longing for freedom from family responsibilities, a desire that is exacerbated because of his inability to earn enough money to make ends meet as a clamdigger.
Marino also wrote the script, which leans heavily on the dramatics with a little salty humor to leaven the heavy stuff. Katherine Dieckmann directed a group of talented actors who can handle both comedy and drama. Too often, though, the filmmakers reach for an easy joke or emotional pay-off rather than trying to pry beneath the surface. This is especially true of the news footage constantly running in the background: coverage of the the U.S. Presidential campaign, contested by Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, plays as though it has some bearing on the story, which never comes near to making any connection to the politics or, really, the mood of the nation beyond the south shore of Long Island.
What's refreshing is Hunt's reaction to his father's passing. He doesn't rail against the old man at first, though he makes it apparent that things were not as he wished between them. But neither does his grief simply melt away -- he continues to be affected by his father's death well beyond the funeral, and is surprised to realize that he misses him far more than he had anticipated. The long-term, usually subtle effects of grief are seldom given much thought in American cinema. Emotional outbursts and angry shouts to heaven have been the favored method of dealing with the loss of a loved one, yet the slow trickle that never seems to stop is much closer to reality for most people. Bravo to the film for that.
The film will screen at AFI Dallas tonight, Friday March 30. Magnolia Pictures will release Diggers in the U.S. on April 27.