I'm starting to think there is only so much you can do with a drug addiction story anymore. As a genre, it may have played itself out. When it comes down to it, junkies aren't as interesting as the long-time fascination writers and filmmakers have had with them might lead us to believe. Take Gillies MacKinnon's 2002 film Pure. It has a promising beginning, an angle that we may have seen before that still feels fresh, but halfway through the movie, as we see one of the main characters jonesing for a fix, we realize there's something terribly average about the experience of addiction. The scene is all too familar, and we've heard the same old junkie lies a million times before. Even the lingo hasn't changed in, like, forever. Did I really just write "jonesing for a fix"?
First, that promising start. Ten-year-old Paul (Harry Eden) lives in an anonymous British city with his mother, Mel (Molly Parker), and little brother, Lee (Vinnie Hunter). Since their father died, Mel has developed a heroin habit, supplied by scummy friend of the family Lenny (David Wenham), the local pimp and dealer. He feeds on the family's need for him, and he uses Mel for his own purposes when the kids are off to school, pretending to care for Paul while he sucks the life from the boy's mother.
The movie opens on Paul's birthday, which his mother has forgotten. Okay, so that is kind of a sappy way to start it, but Paul is such a together little kid, you already feel for him. Those early scenes also contain a rather startling image: Paul cooking up his mother's morning shot and then rousing her so she can take it and head off to work. He's still young enough, he doesn't know that this "medicine" isn't really medicine at all. Mel chastises him for going near it, but bless him, he's just trying to help.
Harry Eden is a remarkable child actor. You may remember him as the Artful Dodger in Polanski's Oliver Twist, if you bothered to see it. He has a tremendous presence, and you never doubt his performance as Paul. It's a tricky role, as the character is standing smack in the middle of the road between being a child and an adult. His mother's condition has fast-tracked him to growing up, as he takes care of everything in the house. When a social worker (Kate Ashfield, Shaun of the Dead) starts looking into the home situation, Paul tries to hold his family together through sheer will, listing off the myriad of tasks he performs, including doing the groceries and laundry, to try to prove there is no need to make the change. When his mother loses her job, he goes to the boss to try to plead her case. That's the child in him, seeing things his way and not wanting to fuss with the details. If they stand together, the three of them can get by.
Unfortunately, harsh lessons are waiting for Paul. He gets in a fight with another kid because he calls Mel a junkie. Only, he swings without even knowing what that means. He starts to question what it and the other drug slang he hears bandied about actually refers to and things start to unravel. More accomplished, older actors would have a hard time showing a character go from denial to the slow acceptance of the awful reality he's faced with. One of the biggest helps in this area is the young waitress, Louise (Keira Knightley), that Paul has a crush on. She's pretty and charming and lets him into her world, and even helps him have his own taste of the smack she and his mother are so enamored of. It's in her sad decline over this very short period that Paul can see his own situation in microcosm.
So, where does it all go wrong? When it comes down to Mel trying to kick the habit and the manipulative behavior that results from her trying to get out of it, it's hard not to feel like we've been there, done that. Same with the scenes with social services and the grandparents trying to take the children away from the horrible woman they blame for the death of their son. You also can see screenwriter Alison Hume beginning to arrange all the plot elements she needs for a clean wrap-up. As soon as the police detective (Harry Lewis, Eragon) knocks on Paul's door, you know the boy will eventually help him take down Lenny. It's inevitable.
All of which might be fine if Pure wasn't so overwrought. MacKinnon's direction stamps a heavy foot down onto our heart strings, and his tactics take a turn for the cheap. His most blatant tool is the movie's score. Just try to block out the melancholy strums that accompany every emotional scene, or the orchestral surges that signal when we're supposed to understand that the situation is so very dire. Annoyingly, MacKinnon and composer Nitin Sawhney also keep a drum-and-bass track in their back pocket for every time Paul gets in trouble. It's like we've suddenly shifted into Run, Lola, Run.
By the end of Pure, I realized I just didn't care what happened to Paul and the rest. MacKinnon's mawkish tones and Hume's by-the-book screenplay telegraph that the ending is a foregone conclusion, and so as a viewer, I can be lazy and never invest any real interest in the story. It's like how when I go to bed at night, I don't worry whether or not the sun will be in the sky come morning. It was there last time, it'll likely show up again. So it goes with junkie movies. The sun always comes up. Mel, Paul, and Lee will--and do--walk back out into the light.
The anamorphic widescreen picture for Pure has nice colors and tones, and is generally sharp. It's a very conscientious transfer for a small indie film.
No fancy mixes, no subtitles, just a basic Dolby audio track.
There is one video feature (excepting the theatrical trailer for the film) on Pure, a half-hour interview with director Gillies MacKinnon. It goes fairly in-depth, exploring the meaning of the movie, working with a child actor, the sudden fame of Keira Knightley, and other elements of the production.
The rest of the extras are all galleries or text based: still photos, posters, and cast and crew biographies. The posters are interesting for how much they push Keira Knightley to the forefront and marginalize Molly Parker and Harry Eden. Even this DVD edition does the same thing.
Rent It. Pure begins with noble aspirations, but eventually falls into the same old, same old of every addiction movie that has preceded it. The character of Paul, as played so well by young actor Harry Eden, takes an interesting journey from being completely out of the loop of what is really going on over to seeing all the illusions he has about the world falling away. His quest to save his mother from her heroin habit is played with conviction and heart, but the final act is clichéd and mawkish, and so Pure ends up being a bit of a snooze.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.