Textured with the smoggy grays and troubadour blues of his provincial Illinois homeland, writer-director Brian Jun's likable, downbeat debut proves that it takes a mighty low-key drama to stay under the radar after a Sundance premiere. But whatever Steel City lacks in oomph or even originality, it at least breaks even with its working-class authenticity and unexpectedly well-rounded ensemble. Already weathered as young men, bruised wage slave PJ (Thomas Guiry) and his adulterous older brother Ben (Clayne Crawford) are angry and aimless, both following in the irresponsible footsteps of their alcoholic father (John Heard, a grizzled standout). Karma has sucker-punched Dad with a prison sentence for vehicular manslaughter, leaving PJ to take on debts he can't pay off, beg his happily remarried mother for help, and grapple with his love for co-worker Amy (America Ferrera), a real woman with curves whom PJ calls an ugly Betty behind her back. Jun's sensitivities are sincere as he keeps the go-nowhere grimness in check, even under the strain of heavy-handed music cues and a few too many montages attempting a regional blend of neo-Malick environmental poetry.
Crawford woos Heather McComb.
Steel City Opens at Varsity, Fri., June 1. Rated R. 95 minutes.