Tag Archives: addictions

TIFF18: The Land of Steady Habits

Anders is mid-life-crisis-ing, hard. He left his wife, quit his job, sleeps with strangers he meets in Bed, Bath & Beyond while shopping for knick-knacks to fill his empty shelves. BUT HE’S STILL NOT HAPPY! Can you believe that abandoning everything you spent your lifetime building is not the path to true happiness? Can you imagine that the real problem was him all along?

I mean, those thoughts haven’t occurred to Anders (Ben Mendelsohn) yet. He’s a man. He’s not that quick. In fact, he’s slow and dumb enough to get high with someone else’s son. Charlie (Charlie Tehan) barely survives an overdose but shows up at Anders’ new bachelor pad looking for…friendship? Anders should know better; his own son PrestonMV5BMWZlMjZiMGItMjBhZS00YTlhLTlkMDgtNDc3Y2NkOTc2OGViXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODI4MjAzNjU@._V1_ (Thomas Mann) has been to rehab and apparently still has a problem that isn’t quite addressed. But if his own son isn’t really his problem, why should someone else’s be?

So that doesn’t go well. Nothing does. The Land of Steady Habits is drenched in suburban angst, dripping with the failure of men, both young and old. Director Nicole Holofcener has a knack for eliciting career-best performances from her actors, and Ben Mendelsohn is no exception. His little idiosyncrasies, that devilish grin, they keep the character just shy of being unforgivable. Still, Anders is not meant to be liked. He gambled on the grass being greener and it isn’t. His discontent seems to poison those around him. Ah, the listlessness of the wealthy. It makes it so easy to sit back and judge, guilt-free.

Holofcener makes some interesting choices – notably, that Anders has already shed his previous life when we meet him. And he’s already finding the new one to be hollow. And we experience his search for meaning to be quite petty and superficial. Mendelsohn subverts his usual simmering anger to suggest an inner tension as he navigates relations with his son, ex-wife (Edie Falco), and new love (Connie Britton), with bitter, sometimes humourous results.

The Land of Steady Habits is a good character study that’s a bit uneven as a dramedy. Holofcener tends to be restrained. Sometimes that’s wonderful, and sometimes it’s a little frustrating. This movie seethes with ennui, shame, and regret, and nobody gets a free pass.

Advertisements

TIFF18: A Million Little Pieces

A Million Little Pieces is a technically competent (and occasionally impressive) film that lacks perspective and personality. In life generally and this festival particularly, we have been inundated with films about addictions and recovery. If you’re going to pile on, I expect you have a hot take, a fresh point of view. It’s not unreasonable to expect that A Million Little Pieces might have had one; several years ago (2003, in fact), James Frey released his memoir (of the same name) and it was a monster best-seller. But when questions of authenticity surfaced, Frey’s shooting star burned out quickly, thanks in large part to Oprah’s dragon-fire condemnation.

The film was relegated to back burner, then cold storage, then deep freeze as the controversy was allowed to cool. But now that people have all but forgotten his name, Sam Taylor-Johnson brings his story to the big screen but curiously leaves the scandal unthawed, with only a Mark Twain quote to excuse away his dishonesty.

AMillionLittlePieces_0HEROWhat’s left is a story without a single breath of uniqueness. Drugs are bad, behaviour off the rails, shipped to rehab against his will, detox makes you sick, “I don’t need to be here,” resistance, rule-breaking, temptation, uncovering trauma, cautious optimism. Insert new names and this could literally describe at least a dozen movies about addictions, and those are just the ones I can name and I can’t name shit. Although Sam Taylor-Johnson makes things pretty (save her own husband, with cracked teeth and a broken nose), this feels like a very familiar, very formulaic iteration.

Taylor-Johnson’s husband, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, co-writes the script with her (which seems not to be a strength) and stars as Frey. She has enormous faith in his abilities as an actor, and directs him well. He’s committed and intense, and would have been great in a great role, except they failed to write one, and this “Frey” character is bland and superficial. We hardly get to know him, and the few flashbacks are not informative or expository, they’re hardly more than images. That said, his costars, including Billy Bob Thornton, Giovanni Ribisi, Juliette Lewis, Charlie Hunnam, and Odessa Young, get even shorter shrift. Back stories? Ha. These people barely get front stories. They fill the obligatory sharing-circle chairs and that’s about it.

I think there might have been a little life to this story had they not shied away from the truth of it. But as is, it’s a million little pieces of ordinary that add up to 113 minutes of boring, minus the 40 seconds or so when Aaron rocks out with his cock out. With so many options at the cinema, this just doesn’t cut it. An easy miss.

TIFF18: Beautiful Boy

Wow, fucking Steve Carell, eh? What are we doing to deserve him?

Some say burying a child is the hardest thing a parent can do, but Beautiful Boy proves there are much, much worse things: watching your child suffer; watching him kill himself, slowly; having him cry for help and refusing; waiting for That Call; mourning him while he’s still alive. For years Steve Carell was America’s favourite clown, but his movie career has proven him equally capable in both the comedy and dramatic worlds.

Beautiful Boy is a memoir of sorts, written by a father in crisis. David (Carell) has always been close to his son, until suddenly he’s not. In just a matter of weeks he’s felt him slip away, and now he’s questioning whether he ever knew him at all.

Nic (Timothee Chalamet)was not an abused kid, was well cared-for during childhood. But he chases the high, craves it, needs it. And crystal meth is the absolute worst drug of choice, its use destroying nerve endings, requiring the user to need more each time just to feel the same high. Those escalating quantities worsen the addiction, making his body MV5BNTRmNjFlYzEtMzVhZi00NmEwLTgxYTktYTQ1OTgwNDc2ZDZkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyODE1MjMyNzI@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_crave it even more: a vicious cycle. It doesn’t always happen like this, but sometimes it’s a normal, happy, middle-class kid from a good and loving family who falls prey. Nic feels he’s disappointing his family. His parents feel they’ve somehow failed him. But now what? Do you support/enable him indefinitely, do you watch his teeth rot and his flesh waste and the life behind his eyes disappear? Do you allow his behaviour to tear your whole family apart, exposing younger siblings to it? Or do you cut him loose, not knowing where he is or if he’s safe, hoping every day that his rock bottom isn’t 6 feet deep?

I am astonished by the mastery of Steve Carell as he shows the impact of these decisions with his drawn, haggard face. He isn’t an overly emotive man, nor does he need to be to convey his agony. But the movie itself never quite comes together as successfully as the performances. I did appreciate the structure and how it mimics the highs and lows and false promises of recovery and relapse, but audiences may find it frustrating.

Beautiful Boy was never going to be a beautiful movie, but it works better as a portrait of a family in crisis than it does as a treatise on addiction. This story belongs more to the father, safe if worried in his warm, comfortable home. His son, who disappears for large chunks, is not shown in the direst of conditions in which he must live. If anything, the film nearly glamourizes drug use without being honest about the consequences for balance, which feels a little irresponsible.

This movie will be remembered for its performances, Carell’s especially, but not its content.

Recovery Boys

So in my other life, I’m a crisis counselor. Which is different from the type of therapist you see once a week. I come in when someone is thinking urgent thoughts of or is planning or attempting suicide. Sometimes I only talk to clients once, on the worst day of their lives, in order to make sure it’s not their last. Other times they might become a regular, someone I’m in contact with very often, sometimes every day, because every day is a struggle. As you can imagine, I’ve heard and seen everything. EVERYTHING. But that doesn’t mean shit doesn’t get to me. I’ve been the recipient of every graphic disclosure you can think of about 70 billion you can’t even imagine, but something rather innocuous struck me last week: a client told me he’d recently met someone who claimed to have never had an addiction problem in their life. And my client couldn’t believe it. Had never encountered such a person before. Declared he must either be a liar or a rarity. Imagine not knowing a single sober MV5BMTk1NDY0OTE0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjg0MjI0NTM@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1498,1000_AL_person. In my life, and probably in yours, addictions are the exception and not the rule. But for people who are in different circumstances, life is hard as fuck, and living sober can feel impossible. And that’s not even factoring in genetics. I felt so sad for this client of mine who has never known anything else.

So this is my mindset, I’m either in the best place to watch this documentary, or the worst. It’s about a group of men in a farming-based residential rehab facility.

Jeff is the rehab’s first ever client, and arrives straight from jail. He’s very young but he’s got two kids in foster care, awaiting either him or their mother to get straight and reclaim them. They’re at the forefront of his mind, and visitation makes it clear that he is a loving and doting father. So the fact that he keeps fucking up proves how deeply the addiction monster’s got his claws in him.

Adam receives a loving letter from his grandmother and it unravels him because he can’t reconcile her affection with his behaviour. She works at a goodwill to stave off homelessness because of all he’s stolen from her, but still she loves him. He knows he would never be so forgiving. He’s undone.

As a staff member of the rehab facility points out, these men are facing a “menu of shitty options.” I know that addictions are a disease, one that gets almost zero sympathy, but it’s not unlike heart disease. Sure there’s a lifestyle component, but there’s also genes and compulsion. But no matter how many hamburgers you continue to eat after your first and second heart attacks, society will continue to weep for you around your hospital bed. Not so with drug relapses. Those people we revile for their “weakness” and “bad choices.” If only it were so easy.

This is not an episode of Intervention. No one’s trying to dramatize or glamourize anything, and it doesn’t get wrapped up neatly in the end. It’s clear that director Elaine McMillion Sheldon knows something about addictions, understands that your first trip to rehab is rarely your last. We don’t learn anything about addictions in this film. Instead, we live briefly in their shoes. We see the struggle. We know there is no cure, that recovery is an every day commitment, and we should be really honest with ourselves about how hard that would be for any single one of us. But some of us win the genetic lottery and some of us lose. The least we can do is show a little compassion, which this documentary engenders rather well.

Columbus

Jin is summoned from Korea to Columbus, Ohio by Eleanor when his estranged father collapses. Jin impatiently waits out his father’s coma, and seems to prefer death over recovery, for selfish reasons. He can’t bear to to sit by his father’s hospital bed, and he’s not going to speak to him now since the two haven’t spoken in a year. So he wanders about, trying to appreciate what his father loved about Columbus’s unique architecture.

This is how Jin (John Cho) meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman stayed in Columbus to take care of her addict mother rather than pursuing her own dreams in college and beyond.

The cool thing about Columbus is its cinematography, which is surprisingly beautiful in such a small, independent film. It frames the architecture well – except scratch that, I’m embarrassed by this underwhelming sentiment. Because the truth is, the way the buildings are framed and posed and shown and hidden – it made me feel MV5BZjNjY2Q2NjAtOWI0My00ZDg3LTljNzEtNzhiYzkzNzUwMTI0XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMzI3NjY2ODc@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_things about architecture. The photography is just as kind to its human characters, but the way it treats the artistry of the buildings turns them into characters as well, characters that reflect and mirror or juxtapose and contrast. It’s clear that writer-director Kogonada has put a lot of thought and time and research into his baby.

Columbus isn’t an ambition story, it’s just two people, fairly dissimilar, who cross paths as they kill time in different ways. They’re both waiting on parents, and probably shouldn’t be. They’re both learning what that means and who it makes them as people and what effect they’ll allow the past to have on their futures. It’s mostly quiet and introspective, but the composition and structure and the precision of the visuals come together – not to overcome the silence, but to act in synchronicity. Kogonada finds serenity in stasis but that doesn’t mean his film doesn’t pack an emotional punch. It’s just a minimalist canvas upon which you can project a lot of your own feelings, and come away feeling just a bit refreshed, and just a tiny bit hopeful.

SXSW: Take Your Pills

Oh lord – I can’t decide what I’m more relieved about: not being a kid today, or not being a parent today.

Every era gets the drug it deserves, so says the movie’s clever blurb. This generation? This generation takes Adderall. Amphetamines have been around for a long time, but it’s never been more eagerly prescribed to kids than it is today, in the form of ADHD meds, or more abused by students who just like the feeling of being “zoned in” – hence its nickname, college crack.

I’ve never heard of a drug that made me feel old. But back in my day, we took drugs to turn off and check out, but kids today are taking it to check in. And that’s a pretty MV5BNWQ5NDYxNjYtODc4Ni00NmIyLWEyMGYtNGM0N2ZmYjgzYTliXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTg0MzU3NjM@._V1_damning comment on today’s hyper competitive culture in which young adults liken abusing prescribed drugs to drinking a cup of coffee. Like I said, amphetamines aren’t new: The Beatles took them, Andy Warhol took them, Vietnam soldiers took them in order to go, go, go. And then they became horribly addicted, and the drugs became controlled. Except now students are seeking them out as performance-enhancers, faking ADHD to gain an edge while taking the SATs, and getting their hands on drugs whether prescribed or not.

It’s not like this phenomenon was news to me, but being confronted by the statistics in this movie had me uttering “oh shit” with alarming frequency. And that’s what you want in a documentary: facts to open your eyes, and anecdotes to give them colour. Director Alison Klayman looks at the drug’s history, its effects, its draw, its efficacy, the truth and the lies behind it. This documentary takes an issue that may have been niggling at you for a while and makes it not just a headline but an easily digestible information bomb. There are ethics at play here, so ultimately Klayman provides the context but the judgements and decisions are still yours to make – but information is power, and if you’re willing to dose yourself a stimulant, the LEAST you can do is prescribe yourself a little reality to go along with it.

SXSW: Unlovable

Joy is on the brink of total disaster. After a failed suicide attempt, she finally admits that the disease she doesn’t 100% believe she has maybe needs to be treated: she’s a sex and love addict. So she joins a group and gets a sponsor. But restarting her life isn’t easy. She’s just lost her boyfriend and her job and her apartment. These are the kinds of circumstances that often lead her straight back into the arms of her addiction.

Luckily her new sponsor Maddie offers her her grandma’s guest house. “Just don’t bother the caretaker” she warns – so of course Joy’s first stop is to bother the grandmother’s caretaker, who is Maddie’s weird, reclusive brother, Jim.

Maddie (Melissa Leo) is of course a recovering sex and love addict herself and Jim (John Hawkes) has his own issues. [My issue is: with these actors both in their very late 50’s, how on earth do they have a living grandparent?] Throwing Joy, who is a bowl of mixed nuts what with her quirky, cheerful, suicidal, hopeless personality into the blender – well, it makes for a smoothie with a kick, that’s for sure.

Joy (Charlene deGuzman) suffers her share of ups and downs – lots of perogies and orgies – but for all the “love” and all the sex, she doesn’t really begin to understand true intimacy until she and Jim bond over music and start a friendship, and a band, not necessarily in that order.

Addiction is not a disease that is “cured” but one that is managed, very carefully, and with lots of effort. It’s sort of a relief to see a “nice girl” felled by addictions – truly, they don’t discriminate – and it’s good to see representation both good and bad on the big screen. Joy perhaps doesn’t look like she fits the common mold, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find the pain that she’s been hiding behind cat tshirts and loud prints for years. And support systems are key in maintaining a healthy life, but they don’t always come for where we’d expect. Each character in Unlovable has something to give, but also a reason for wanting to hold back.

At one point Maddie says “We get what we think we deserve” and I’ve said the same often myself. We let people treat us terribly when we think we’re worthless. Unlovable is about finding yourself lovable and worthy of love, and learning a way to give that love to yourself.