'Meth Head' Review: Strong Performers Can't Save This After School Special
It is difficult to do a movie on the dangers of drug use and addiction without being preachy. Meth Head certainly has a problem with this. Jane Clark who both wrote and directed this feature ably directs the POV action that finds tweaker Kyle (Lukas Haas) being threatened and assaulted by drug supplier and dealer Carlos (Theo Rossi). The camera fades in and out along with Kyle’s consciousness, and the last thing we see is Carlos apparently shooting Kyle.
The rest is told in flashback, before Kyle was using. At a fundraiser for crystal meth addicts Kyle and his fiancée Julian (Wilson Cruz) meet photographer and hair gel enthusiast Dusty (Blake Berris) who flirts and offers them meth; one has to admire Dusty’s sense of irony if nothing else. While Meth Head does tend toward an after school special level of piety and melodrama, something that Clark subtlety admits with the characters of Julian and Carolyn (Victoria Profeta) is that there are people who can take drugs — coke and meth are used as examples — recreationally without becoming full blown addicts. It’s a fact that is often overlooked, especially in movies about addiction, and helps further the idea of addiction being this disease that some people get while others don’t.
The narrative skips around fairly often, covering large gaps between scenes, leading the film to tell more than show. Part of what makes the story falter is the fact that so much attention is given to the difficulties and horror of addiction and not how it is that one can become hooked. It’s established that Kyle uses because of his lack of confidence, his lack of fulfillment at work, and the lack of support he has from his politician father because of his homosexuality. It’s also established that Kyle uses to relieve those anxieties and stressors — which is what many people do — but the problem is that we never see the joy of using, we never see the high-highs that lead some to dependency. So much of the movie is falling action, so focused on the result that the initial equation gets lost.
The film shifts entirely to a tweaker view, showing us Kyle, Dusty and Maia (Necar Zadegan) descending further into addiction and looking progressively sicker. Dusty and Maia are in some sort of relationship, though they each prostitute themselves for drug money; Kyle soon follows suit. They live in a cul-de-sac flanked by neighbors Pinkie (Candis Cayne), who irritatingly speaks in the third person, and Bobby Blue (John W. McLaughlin), who join the plot once in a while to say something trite and obvious about addiction and finding help. Both were apparently users in the past but keep enabling the users among them anyway for some reason, giving them a hand whenever needed, and eventually Bobby returns to using and selling himself for money.
Much of Meth Head’s material is drawn from McLaughin’s own life experiences – he receives an ‘inspired by’ screenwriting credit – as well as several other real life figures (possibly from the 2006 documentary Meth) so there is an obvious mish-mash of characters here that we know must have interesting stories but are never fully developed or explored leading the arcs to be incomplete and the film to be choppy. While the true story of Ron Woodroof was at the center of Dallas Buyers Club, other real-life characters and stories (Eve, Rayon, and Dr. Vass) were mixed in and given complete arcs. Some of these things were drawn from real life, some of these were fiction but it added to a larger and fuller picture, and made Dallas Buyers Club whole; in contrast, Meth Head is stripped to the point of minimalism, like snapshots taken from Dusty’s camera, though the photo album can’t tell the full story. We’re given pieces, yes, and what connects them is tenuous, often trite and very jagged.
The second half of the film peeks in on smaller subplots and continues to preach heavy-handedly and by the time Tom Sizemore appears as Sonny to wake the audience up and lend credence to the life of an addict, we’re quite exhausted by the cheapness of the plot. On the other hand, the second half does have the best acting and allows director Jane Clark to stretch her muscles. Haas, Zadegan and Berris take turns stealing scenes from each other, and as lacking in subtextual substance as the dialogue may be, the raw desperation and vulgarity that permeate their lives is perfectly rendered through these three actors, and end up keeping you with the movie.
Each of the trinity debase themselves further and further that by the time Mannie shows up — played by the ominously named Deadlee — we know nothing good will come of this, we even know what will happen but it doesn’t make it easier to watch. The performances are searing, if a single word should be used to describe them.
It’s the actors that sell movie since it cannot really overcome its own amateurish writing. In the end, Kyle begins recovery though there isn’t really a lesson learned. Carlos, of course, didn’t shoot him, and once again the opening scene was just a pretense for a copout (leading to a laughably bad scene of moving a corpse in broad day light in a residential neighborhood). Kyle narrated his own thoughts to his fellow tweakers with too much self-awareness that even the dark nature of the plot and Haas’ performance didn’t quite cover up. In the future, Jane Clark should stick to directing, as she has ample talent in that department, using staccato shots, manipulating lighting and utilizing intimate framing.
The results are a well-meaning, well-acted but ultimately preachy film that runs too close to two hours, and offers no new insight on addicts, the substances they use, or the lives they affect.