Mapping the intersection between two very different women plagued by drug addiction — one sinking, the other clinging to sobriety for dear life — writer-director Rosemary Rodriguez’s debut feature, “Acts of Worship,” is an earnest drama that’s never quite as raw or moving as it means to be. Paling beside more potent recent treatments of similar themes (“Requiem for a Dream,” fellow Sundance preemer “MacArthur Park”), it has the feel, if not the recognizable name players, of a social-problem telepic. Indeed, broadcast berths seem the likeliest destination for a serious, competently crafted pic that comes off more formulaic than indie-gritty.
Part of that effect is due to casting: While theater/TV-credited thesp Ana Reeder gives a solid perf, the positing of this corn-fed, fine-featured blonde as a homeless New York City crack and heroin addict is at odds with pic’s realistic aims. No doubt some street casualties are young, white, pretty and from comfortable suburban homes. But placing this figure at narrative center — without enough insight re how she got there — lends “Worship” a contrived air it never fully shakes.
Alix (Reeder) has just been thrown out by her musician b.f., Mark (Christopher Kadish), who has a taste for the needle himself — but her stealing and lies have violated even his liberal moral standards. Wandering Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Alix hustles up her fixes through petty theft.
When a “reunion” with Mark leads to her smack O.D., he panics and abandons her in his apartment building hallway. Alix is found by photographer Digna (Michael Hyatt), an older black woman whose own narrow escape from self-destruction through drugs awakens a maternal concern toward this “lost” girl.
With nowhere else to go, Alix accepts Digna’s offer to stay on and clean up. Former’s will is weak, however. Further, Alix’s blunt nostalgia for dope is a bad influence on Digna, whose fast-tracked career success only exacerbates her sober-by-a-thread sense of living a lie.
Watching all this with ill-concealed dread is Digna’s straight-arrow boyfriend, Anthony (Nestor Rodriguez), an aspiring standup comic. His fears are duly borne out when Alix falls off the wagon, disappearing for days. Digna freezes, unable to let go of this apparently unsalvageable “child.” When the two meet again, Alix has hit bottom; predictable but effective climax finds Digna dragged down as well.
As penned by helmer and quietly played by Hyatt, Digna is the much more interesting protag, though her complexities aren’t fully explored. Despite dialogue rationales, it strains credibility that she’d take untrustworthy, peevish Alix into her home on a whim.
Alix, meanwhile, is granted scant depth or backstory. Making her character so unappealing (if not wholly unsympathetic) was an offbeat decision, but she emerges more a blank conceit than a dimensionalized hard case. We have to accept on faith that Alix has the resolve to kick drugs (however briefly), because the script suggests no such desire. Reeder does vividly deteriorate in later scenes, a credit to both thesp and astute cosmetic work.
Support turns are strong, though one glimpse of Anthony’s comedy act at a club is so unintentionally awful it should be cut ASAP. Occasional gaps in logic (if Mark lives just across the hall, how does Alix manage to avoid him for months?) and a too-vague sense of passing time rep small but nagging flaws. Design and tech contribs are solid, if uninspired; location-shot Manhattan exteriors add a welcome dose of harsh immediacy.