Travis Mills writes and directs Porches and Private Eyes, his second film of 2016 after Durant’s Never Closes. Like the latter, Porches and Private Eyes has a strong sense of place. In this instance, it’s the town of Brookhaven in Mississippi that forms the underpinning.
Mills has always considered his locations with care. Way back in 2011 with The Big Something, Tempe landmarks made appearances. Dark Phoenix streets shone against the night in The Detective’s Lover, while Duel at the Mound made ritualistic hay out of a baseball diamond. For the Arizona filmmaker, the sense of environment is vital.
Porches and Private Eyes concerns three women: Ann (Lynn Forney), Jenny (Elise McMurry) and Patsy (Marlene Cupit). Ann is a lawyer making the rounds through the dating scene, while Jenny owns a struggling bar with her husband Brennan (Joshua Powell). Patsy is doing her best to raise her kids while her husband (Michael Randall) pops in whenever he feels like it.
The women meet regularly for “porch time,” which essentially consists of drinking and gossip. When a new man (Bo Pennington) rolls into town and a man named Jimmy goes missing, Ann, Jenny and Patsy begin to suspect the “Yankee outsider” and start snooping around.
There are some interesting characters in Porches and Private Eyes. Jenny is the youngest of the three women and she contends with her moustache of a father (Cotton Yancey), who never gets tired of the “I told you so” act and disapproves of everything his little girl does.
And there’s Ann, introduced singing in the church choir. She’s been through most of the Brookhaven bachelors. Pennington’s character represents some new blood, especially as it seems he kind of likes her too. They date awkwardly, with Ann’s suspicion colliding with base desires. Luckily, she gets a cup of coffee just the way she likes it.
Patsy is the most amusing of the bunch and she forms the moral centre. She’s into sweet tea and she’s concealing a lot of hurt under a façade of Southern hospitality. The shades slip sometimes, like when she uncorks on a nosy neighbour. For the most part, she keeps up appearances – even though her heart must ache on account of her husband’s marital levity.
Brookhaven is, according to the sign on West Cherokee, a “home keepers paradise” and Mill’s picture revels in that old-fashioned sensibility. But it also prods the characters forward, presenting three leading women who excel not because of the men in their lives or their romantic entanglements but because of their innate values and features.
The trouble with Porches and Private Eyes is in finding the balance. The mystery, such as it is, underwhelms. The subplots tumble due to lack of attention and focus. There are conveniences that are more frustrating than satisfying and the final gambit at the town’s theatre lacks the tautness and control to allow for resonance.
Unfortunately, Porches and Private Eyes never pulls out of its goodwill phase and into sturdier moments of narrative strength. Despite the magnificent cinematography, well-rounded characters and compelling subtext, the picture has a whole mess of trouble assembling the parts into a consistent, workable whole.