What will independent films look like in 30 years, and how will we watch them? Bubble, a devious and fascinating feature written by Coleman Hough and directed by Steven Soderbergh, provides a possible glimpse. The movie was shot on high-definition video for a budget of $1.6 million, and it's being released simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, and on cable television an innovative strategy designed to inject a bite-size movie into the national bloodstream, instead of letting it languish in the usual snail-paced, platform oblivion.
What lends this distribution experiment a special resonance is that Bubble, which is set in small-town Ohio and West Virginia and features a cast of nonactors who drew their performances out of their own lives (every last one of them is terrific), seems to have emerged, in form and spirit, from an America that the movies usually leave out. I'm talking about the heartland fringe dwellers who live from paycheck to paycheck, and who've done it long enough to have forgotten how to imagine a future. Bubble, which follows the intersecting lives of three workers at a doll factory, is an authentic vision of wage-slave America, with a tinge of Diane Arbus-at-the-shopping-mall creepiness, but it's also a tricky and satisfying entertainment a deadpan portrait of cultural anomie that turns into a casually credible murder mystery. All in 75 minutes. Of the idiosyncratic ''little'' movies that Soderbergh has made to clear his head (Full Frontal, Schizopolis), this is the first that truly connects.
In the opening scene, Martha (Debbie Doebereiner), morosely overweight, with hair the color of Tang, rises at dawn in the tract house she shares with her ancient father, then drives down the block, as she does every day, to pick up Kyle (Dustin James Ashley), a pleasant young co-worker with a crooked shy grin. Arriving at the factory, they settle into the job of constructing plastic babies (we see the latex poured into body molds, the marble eyes popped into those big bald heads), and Soderbergh, working with clean, documentary-like precision, presents their job environment as a kind of winking purgatory: the living dead making the living dead. Martha, who gorges on junk carbs, eating away her misery, considers Kyle her best friend, but it's not clear if the feeling is entirely mutual. As they sit in the lunchroom, scarfing fast food, the atmosphere of casual disaffection is beautifully evoked, the blah flickers of talk delivered with compulsive American good cheer. A new co-worker arrives: Rose (Misty Dawn Wilkins), 20ish and pretty, who speaks in the same numb yet upbeat mode. She makes eye contact with Kyle and takes smoking breaks with him, and before long they arrange a date, with Martha, so passive and eager to please, babysitting for Rose's 2-year-old daughter.
What happens that evening is, in essence, the entire movie. It would be a crime to give a scrap of it away, but Soderbergh, sticking to the exotic desolation of these bleak ''whatever'' lives, finds a comic poetry in the blankness; he has made a minimalist domestic Executioner's Song. The acting in Bubble is powerful enough to shame many of the performances in Hollywood movies. Debbie Doebereiner, who in real life manages a Kentucky Fried Chicken, makes Martha a touching gargoyle of sadness, a cipher stewing in her forlorn juice. Dustin James Ashley plays Kyle as the most quizzical and recessive of stoners, and Misty Dawn Wilkins makes Rose an everyday femme fatale, her pert and girlish charm concealing an economic desperation that has turned her into a petty criminal. Soderbergh stares at every one of them with open eyes: a shrewd affection and detachment that lends this little movie a big echo.