Metro Cannes Review
May 2008, 4/5 Stars
When things get really bad, they can only get better. This is the faint hope that motivates the characters in Duane Hopkins’ Better Things. In this remote spot in windy rural England, men and woman of all ages are looking for love. Gail, an ungrateful and agoraphobic adolescent, lives out her romantic dreams through romance novels. The worn-out love between the Gladwins is further eroded by an old transgression. Rob and Tess are bound together by their drug use. After his girlfriend ODs, Rob seeks solace in the drugs that killed her, sinking ever deeper. The actors, mostly novices and drug addicts, are filmed without make-up, which reinforces the bitter and brute realism of this esthetic film. Beautiful and depressing.
Better Things deals with shocking subject matter in a sophisticated style. Opening with a death by drug overdose and infused with a mournful atmosphere, this debut feature by the UK’s Duane Hopkins screened in competition today in the Critics’ Week, revealing the work of a young director with impressive cinematic flair.
In the same vein as his two multiple award-winning shorts (2004 EFA Award for Love Me or Leave Me Alone), Hopkins has set his self-penned ensemble film in a village in the Cotswolds, in central western England, and uses mainly non-professional actors. Skilfully interweaving five separate stories, Better Things unfolds from an initial comment that perfectly captures the prevailing mood: "Real life was tough at the best of times.
"The film centres on two teenagers who are either trying to escape from reality and the emptiness of everyday life by turning to drug addiction (with Liam McIlfatrick in the lead role), or battling with agoraphobia (Rachel McIntyre) and desperate love affairs. At the same time, the feature – whose plot and dialogues are minimalist – looks at the lives of their grand-parents’ generation (a dying woman and an old couple suffering a crisis in communication).
All these characters are unstable and appear to be on the verge of breakdown, even though a better life seems almost within reach.The world of drug-taking is explored in documentary style, from smoking joints to shooting up, popping pills and waiting for the local dealer. The drug consumption is shown in minute detail – and is not recommended for the faint-hearted.
This Short Cuts-style film, full of fragile hopes and imbued with a deathly atmosphere, is outstanding in terms of its directorial approach. From the skilful changes in rhythm to the editing and the aesthetic effects of the natural light, Hopkins reveals an originality and talent that the future will no doubt confirm.