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23 October 2008 (UK)  »

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A bit too restrained but still an engaging and depressing documentary
9 March 2009 | by (United Kingdom) – See all my reviews

This documentary came in for high praise from the media before it was shown recently. Reviews talked of how impacting and depressing it was and I had braced myself for something of an emotional punch. Shortly before watching this film I had seen Louis Theroux covering Philadelphia (where drugs are a major problem) and of course, as a fan of The Wire, I had seen characters I deeply cared for struggle to break free of drugs while others fell into the world of use for the first time. I mention both of these because it is important to put into context the fact that I found this documentary to be remarkably restrained and more depressing than it was shocking or impacting.

This is not a major criticism though, more a disagreement with what many others have been saying on this. The film follows Hannah, her partner and her mother Kate for a period of time, watching them and interviewing them as it goes. What we get is a very matter-of-fact presentation of a daughter hooked on drugs. The film may have been more "sensational" if it had captured lots of tears, lots of fighting and loads of drama on the way to a possible redemption but it is much more honest in what it does document. It is clear from the start that the shock and emotional swings have come out of this situation with time because mother Kate is very restrained in how she talks about her daughter's addiction. The things she describes are occasionally horrific and depressing but she does it with the air of someone who doesn't get carried away with hope and, while not accepting the situation as in giving up on it, is certainly unsurprised by the situation and seems to wear it rather than get hit by it.

This side of the film is perhaps a little too restrained though and it does limit the emotional impact to a certain point. The scenes following Hannah are equally matter-of-fact and straight-forward. There is no swelling music to tell us to be moved and there is no "sensational" footage to really shock the viewer. Instead what we get is a grimy, pointless grind of reality on drugs. Over the course of the film, Hannah shoots up several times a day for hundreds of days. She moves house/hostel about 5 or 6 times. She begs on the street and so on, but mostly what she does is hang round in a quiet daze waiting for her next fix. Physically she is not shocking in her appearance but her arms are battered and we have to watch her try and find somewhere on her foot to inject. There is an element to the presentation that will leave some viewers wanting more of a punch again, but this low-key realism is effective for what it is and creates a general air of depression and being trapped that is different from the specific impact points of some films etc on a similar theme.

I'm not convinced that it is as brilliant a film as some way because I do think that the restrained and unspectacular approach does mean that some viewers will be left a bit cold by it or be looking for more of a punch. However, for this downside, the upside of it is that it is suitably grim and depressing, offering up a daily grind rather than one or two "big" scenes. It offers no answers either, adding to both the depressing aspect of it but also the realism. A different approach and film from the one you might expect but, in what it sets out to do, it is very effective.

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