Following parallel paths of degradation and decline — that of the once-thriving Massachusetts city of Lowell, and the lives of three crack addicts among its present inhabitants — the team of Jon Alpert, Maryann De Leo and Rich Farrell come up with a gritty hourlong journey across depressing terrain. Using an unsteady, hand-held camera, they poke around in the wasted city and its wasted lives.
A roomful of crack addicts puff on their home-devised “pipes” (nothing more than a tube stuck into a plastic soda bottle); the camera singles out three individuals and follows their fortunes over an 18-months span.
Brenda clings to her addiction: “I love it more than anything; I hate it worse than anything.” Pregnant by her sometime boyfriend Boo Boo, she wavers between abortion and motherhood, walks the streets nightly, terrified of the boredom concomitant on going straight.
Boo Boo supports his habit through theft. “I know every shopping mall in Massachusetts,” he boasts. Dickie out on bail for an impressive list of charges , relives on videotape the one moment of glory in his life, knocking out Sugar Ray Leonard at a local boxing meet.
Nothing is resolved; instead, the very flatness of the producers’ style with reporter De Leo’s offscreen questioning providing a gentle prod, matches the hopelessness of the lives depicted. No system is indiccted; the city rots, and so do the three sorry individuals whom the documakers have chosen to follow; they’re aware that better ways of life exist but are resigned to never entering them.
Brenda and her baby disappear; Boo Boo, who has learned that he is HIV-positive, makes only a half-hearted effort to find them. Dickie spends one last happy night with his crack bottle before starting his jail term. A final heartbreaking shot, of rusting ruins of Lowell’s once prosperous textile mills sinking into the onrushing, polluted Merrimack River, sums it up tellingly.