In a way, the car crash at the heart of Steel City is the dog that didn't bark: Frequently alluded to and responsible for much of the narrative, it's never glimpsed, never even spelled out in detail. Viewers are left to themselves to deduce what happened and how they feel about it. On one level, it's an unsatisfying way of telling a story; imagine if the central vehicular accidents in Amores Perros or The Sweet Hereafter had gone unseen, appearing onscreen only through verbal postmortems. But first-time writer-director Brian Jun makes it clear that Steel City isn't about big events, even crucial inciting ones. It's about day-to-day decisions and how they change and inform relationships.
The Black Donnellys vet Tom Guiry stars as a troubled Midwestern boy dealing with a fatal car crash that seems likely to send his dad (John Heard) to prison. Heard abandoned the family when Guiry was a child; the film's most gaping flaw is its failure to address how and why they reconciled, but that early abandonment casts a long shadow over Guiry and his older brother Clayne Crawford, a beer-swillin', trailer-dwellin', wife-betrayin' good ol' boy straight out of a country song. Guiry and Crawford have both grown up as prickly, distrustful, and beaten-down, full of pride but not prowess, and barely eking by. When Guiry seems likely to lose the run-down family home, he forms a cautious alliance with his dad's brother, Raymond J. Barry. In a more polished, commercial film, the relationship would mean bonding and opening up, with shared memories leading to shared life lessons, and other such predictable uplift. In Jun's hands, it's just one more way for Guiry to prove himself inadequate.
Jun shot Steel City in his rural Illinois hometown, where he seems to know everyone and have access to every inch of the place; the film runs deeper and reaches for more authenticity than most indie debuts, and it's more conscious of its milieu, from the setting to the town's emotional tenor. Guiry, Heard, and particularly Crawford contribute low-key, lived-in performances that center on head-butting confrontations. On a macro scale, not a great deal happens—they talk, they argue, they despair, they pick themselves back up. For the most part, they live life convincingly, in a refreshingly inward-looking, well-made film that's smart enough to stay small, and leave the car crashes to the big summer action movies.