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Review in Critic’s Notebook (online)

December 2008

A no-budget, edgy first feature is becoming de rigeur for British directors looking to get noticed, such as Paul Andrew Williams's "London to Brighton" and Vicky Jewson's "Lady Godiva." Duane Hopkins has been just as brave with his first feature "Better Things." Its world is rural England, its cars and back bedrooms, hospital waiting areas and train platforms. Spaces are cramped and stifling. Most of the characters are young heroin addicts, but a few others are their grandparents. The intercutting between everyone's problems is subtle, and silent. There is little dialogue in the film, and less music. The emphasis on nature shots – grass waving in the wind, a car parked by a field, clouds in a gray sky – show a debt to the work of Terrence Malick. It doesn't sound appetizing, but the film builds with quiet power to an ending mercifully free of cliché.

Drug use in Hollywood film usually involves users who are young, impossibly good-looking urban wildcats. Nobody cares about tomorrow. Guns get waved around and the violence and danger are most of the point. By comparison, think of "Trainspotting;" its depiction of heroin addiction set the tone for how British films have thought about addiction and its portrayal. Mr. Hopkins has done something new in moving far away from all of that.

The people in "Better Things" are all neighbors in an unnamed small, safely middle-class town, who are all aware of Tess (Emma Cooper) died from an overdose, though not all attend her funeral. Rob (Liam McIlfatrick), David (Che Corr) and Jon (Freddie Cunliffe) all did heroin with her, although David, due to the influence of girlfriend Sarah (Tara Ballard), is half-heartedly trying to stop. Jon's grandfather (Frank Bench) is in hospital and there is some unexplained tension between him and his wife (Betty Bench). And Tess's friend Gail (Rachel McIntyre) can't attend as she doesn't leave the house anymore; even the encouragement of her nan (Patricia Loveland) can barely get her out of bed.

Not quite sure how Mr. Hopkins did it, but the film's depiction of the mundaneness of everyday life – going to the grocery store, buying gas, wrapping a present, making tea, staring out the window over the sink – is never boring. Everyone is waiting for something to happen, and no one seems to want to be the person making the first move. The story crackles with an unbelievable amount of tension, just as the skies above the town seem heavy with unfallen rain. Why won't Gail go outside anymore? Why is Sarah still in love with David? Why won't Jon's grandfather tell his wife why he's angry? What's Rob's so afraid of? What are all these people hiding from?

There's no huge drama in "Better Things," but someone walking out of a room as soon as someone else walks in can be the stuff of nightmares. In fact, people kept bursting into tears during the press screening. Confusion and unhappiness are interior emotions and the silence and the echoing pain at the center of this film both reflect and respect that – a difficult tone to master. More clarity with the names of some of the characters would have been preferable, and the three male leads are difficult to tell apart. But the nicest touch is the use of Frank and Betty Bench's real life wedding photo; they have been married over 60 years and were cast due to their local theater connections. With this simple use of an image of a happier time, Mr. Hopkins shows what everyone in the film wants. Its quiet power and clear depiction of unhappiness makes "Better Things" a thoughtful film, although decidedly not a mainstream entertainment, that deserves close regard.

Source | Critic's Notebook


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