The mid-1970s are not a good time for the independent fishermen of Long Island who make their living digging clams. A large commercial firm has just closed a deal granting them exclusive rights to certain clam-rich waters, making it even harder in the economically depressed times for the independent diggers to scratch out a living.
Hunt (Paul Rudd) is one such digger. In his early 30s, he has followed his father and grandfather into the family business, but his heart doesn’t seem to be into it. Hunt is not so much an aimless drifter but someone whose search for a direction in life is weighted down by family obligations. But following the death of his father, Hunt seems reluctant to make any changes. Hunt’s best friend Lozo (Ken Marino, who also authored the screenplay) is a mirror image of Hunt. He has a family and is quiet happy with his life as an independent digger. However, with mounting debt and the drop in income following the most profitable clam fields being restricted, it seems inevitable that he, too, will have to make a change he is unwilling to make. As the summer slowly heads towards fall, Hunt, Lozo and their friends contemplate how their world is changing and what those changes may mean for them.
While it sounds like material for a rather dreary drama, Diggers is more of a light-hearted slice of small town life with Rudd and Marino heading up a capable ensemble cast. Maura Tierney stands out as Hunt’s sister, who takes up with Hunt’s friend and local lothario Jack (Ron Eldrad), behind her brother’s back. Sarah Paulson also does remarkable work as Lozo’s long-suffering wife. Marino’s character walks the boarder of being cartoonish, yet Marino never steps over that line. Marino and Paulson share one especially fine moment where the two face an important decision regarding the future of their family. The screenplay plenty of attention to most of the characters, balancing their stories fairly well. The only character whom seems underserved is Hunt’s love interest Zoey, played by Lauren Ambrose.
For all the silliness of Marino’s script for the comedy The Ten (also screening at the Philadelphia Film Festival), he displays a hitherto unseen emotional depth here. Sure, some of the elements of the story have been seen before, but they’re written and acted so true that they generate empathy for the characters, not contempt for their familiarity. A long Island native who grew up in the 70s, it is hard not to think that there may be more than a touch of autobiography to be found here.
But whether autobiographical or not, by setting it in the summer of 1976, Marino’s screenplay is able to make use of the then current presidential election campaigns – as imparted by television news reports seen in the background throughout the movie – to draw some interesting parallels. As the country was coming out of the turmoil of the end of the Vietnam War and Watergate, it was at a political crossroads of sort with President Gerald Ford representing, fairly or unfairly, the turmoil of the last several years and Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter representing a new direction and a break from the past.