New Indie Releases: Shooting Heroin (2020)-Reviewed

As the Opioid Epidemic rages across the country, it stands to reason that we'd get an influx of movies about it. Ranging from exploitative to preachy, it's not often we find ones that fall somewhere in the middle. At first glance, writer director Spencer T. Folmar's Shooting Heroin appears to fall into the exploitative side of things. The title itself is a play on the idea that vigilantes are going after drug dealers, literally shooting...heroin (get it?), but the film is a surprisingly somber, albeit messy, look at the crisis.  

After his sister dies of an overdose, bartender Adam (Alan Powell), has had enough. Seeking justice, he forms a task force with a grieving mother (Sherilyn Fenn) and hunter (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). What initially begins as a police-deputized team of citizens working to peacefully bring down dealers, quickly turns into vigilante justice as Adam's rage continues to get the best of him.

The core of the film is a strong one, citizens sick of the authorities not taking this seriously and going after it on their own resonates. Especially if you've been affected by this crisis. It's just entirely too blunt in its delivery. With a crisis so serious, sometimes subtlety needs to be thrown out in favor of beating the drum loudly, but Folmar struggles to balance his tones. One scene will have a nuanced, passionate conversation between two people struggling to pick up the pieces, the next will be a comedically evil doctor prescribing an exorbitant amount of drugs to someone with slight leg pain. It tries to have it both ways. It wants us to realize that the drug problem is a hard conversation with no easy answers but portrays so much of said conversation in sketches and stereotypes.

Where Folmar pulls off the balancing act the strongest is in not making this exploitative. You'd think with the subject material that we'd be subjected to countless, tasteless scenes of people shooting up and overdosing. Fortunately, we're limited to maybe two of those all together. Folmar understands that this is a tough subject to depict on film and the line between portrayal and exploitation is very thin. That isn't to say it isn't preachy. Falling back into the stereotypes, the film's dialogue is often far too reliant on platitudes. Instead of putting us in the grim reality it so clearly wants to, it ends up playing a lot like an Anti-Drug PSA. By being laser-focused on getting its message across, it gives up in not exploiting a real problem, by going the other way and being too preachy, too often.

Thankfully, the performances and film-making help keep us rooted in reality when the writing doesn't. Alan Powell is a strong, silent performer who conveys his teeth-clenching anger well. He's never over-the-top or willing to go big and it's a boon to a film that needs it. His actions may go overboard but he never plays it like he thinks they're wrong. That little grace note rings the most true because when we spiral, whether it be through anger or depression, we often don't see how absurd our behavior is. Sherilyn Fenn, as the grief-stricken mother of a daughter who was taken by the epidemic, reminds us why we fell in love with her all those years ago in Twin Peaks. Mixing strong-willed action with heartbreaking naivete, she's the soul of the film. It's those two performances that push the film forward because every other role is populated by people who talk to eachother in anti-drug speak. Hilton-Jacobs and Garry Pastore, who plays Officer Jerry, the group's in with the police, fall most victim to this. They have a hard time registering as real people when their dialogue consists of catch phrases like "By any means necessary."  They get their jobs done but without Powell and Fenn, the film stumbles.

Shot in rural Pennsylvania, where the crisis has hit hard, DP John Honore paints a grim picture through deep greens and stark grays. Evoking the work of filmmakers like Debra Granik or Scott Cooper, it's a beautiful film. If not for the strong work present behind the camera, the mismatching of tone might have sunk the film. Whispering Springs, PA (where it takes place) wears the look of a prestige picture so well and is easily its saving grace. There's a richness to the environment that allows you to settle in and feel a part of it all.  

Shooting Heroin is difficult to be too tough on because it has its heart in the right place and the strength of its craft can't be ignored. Add in solid performances and it just sneaks by as a film deserving of your time. You'll want to eyeroll some of ways in which the epidemic is approached but you won't be able to deny the power it has by the end credits. Didactic? Yes. Blunt? You bet. Mostly Compelling? Absolutely. There are two films that are both better than the one they're contained in, and they're constantly fighting with one another. Violent mob justice vs introspective, anti-drug character piece. Even if those parts are better than the whole, it's a noble enough effort from a filmmaker worth keeping your eye on.

-Brandon Streussnig