So my Rotterdam experience is over and tomorrow begins the Berlinale. For those who’ve read my indieWIRE article on the subject, you’ll know it was somewhat of a mixed bag for me but there were definitely some gems to be found amongst the costume jewels and Michael Tully‘s Cocaine Angel is one such film. You see, I was nervous as hell going in to the screening since Tully and I are friends and the last thing one wants to do is lie to a friend about their film. Thank god I didn’t have to.
In Cocaine Angel, a sparse and to-the-point drama, producer/director Tully and lead actor-screenwriter-producer Damian Lahey show us a world often portrayed in cinema, that of the functioning junkie, but Tully and Lahey give us just enough “what if” to recognize that not every junkie ends up on a morgue slab, riddled with collapsed veins…just most of them. Don’t think this is a “junkie with a heart of gold” redemption story, however. Nothing lead junkie Scott (Lahey) does romanticizes drug addiction or alcoholism and it’s clear from the opening sequence that the high point in a junkie’s day is his first fix and drink, etc. and that rest of the day is just a series of tasks one has to get through on the way to the next hit.
If all you’re doing is shooting junk and waiting to die, the rest of the world sort of passes you by in the fast lane, while you’re eternally changing a tire on the shoulder. But if you’re still at the point where you’re trying, however meekly, to pull yourself together, there’s an awful lot of time spent pushing rocks up a mountain and watching them roll back down again. You might be engaged with the world around you, but it’s still kicking your ass. Scott has an ex-wife who still lets him into her house and still lets him take their daughter on an afternoon outing, even though he’s wearing one shoe and one bloody rag. I suppose one might question her judgment, here, but that’s almost beyond the point.
Lahey is pitch perfect as Scott, his every tic and stutter betraying his drug and booze-affected brain while the urgency in his voice begs to be taken seriously as a man who once had all the hopes, dreams and cares that the rest of us have and who desperately wants to regain a semblance of a real life. Then again, it’s not clear whether or not he understands that his current life is not entirely normal. When you’re a relatively high-functioning addict, there’s a thin line to be walked and Scott and Mary, his girlfriend cum co-dependent whore are staggering right down the middle of it. To be able to pull your head out of your ass, you have to realize where you are to begin with and it’s pretty clear that Scott’s moments of true self-awareness are few and far between and appearing less frequently.
Still, he’s “with it” enough to recognize right from wrong…most of the time, anyway. For example, he realizes that fellow junkie Hurricane Mike (an aptly-named whirlwind performance by Richard Dawson) is out of control and potentially dangerous to his pregnant wife (played by his real wife, Jamie Dawson) and anyone else he meets but not morally centered enough to reject a blow job from the selfsame wife while Mike is in the hospital and Mary is passed out in the other room.
Just to be clear, I am not trying to sell you a load of goods, here. Despite his intentions and occasional lapses into good judgment or behavior, Scott is a still a seriously fucked up junkie and Mary is even worse. Shooting up in a bar bathroom and sucking dick for pills, she is every boy’s dream girl and they are a match made in heaven.
Performances all around are solid (and in some cases superb) and Tully and DP M. Shawn Lewallen (Strike the Tent) know their way around a camera. While Cocaine Angel may not be the most commercial or most original film ever made, it’s certainly head and shoulders above much of the festival dreck out there and at the very least ought to get Tully and co. a leg up on getting their next projects off the ground. Whenever that may be, you can be sure I’ll be watching.
Photos, top to bottom: © Cocaine Angel; Screen’s Wendy Mitchell and director Michael Tully dig the scene at the IFFR’s Director’s Drinks