“Never Get Outta the Boat” is a frequently blistering account of a circle of recovering drug addicts attempting — and sometimes failing — to stay sober at an all-male halfway house in L.A. Repping a stark turn by helmer Paul Quinn into Cassavetes territory after his more traditional debut feature, “This Is My Father,” “Boat” often feels like the result of intensive workshops by a dynamic cast, including screenwriter Nick Gillie, who’s essentially co-creator with Quinn. Though without a distrib, this is one of the few genuine Yank discoveries in the Toronto lineup and should be scooped up by adventurous handlers for solid indie playout in specialized dens.
Opening title montage ranks as one of the harshest in recent film, tracking group of addicts as they hit bottom or get arrested prior to sheltering at 3rd Street House. Watching roomies come and go on a depressingly regular basis, residents Cesar (Lombardo Boyar), Joe (Gillie) and Franky (Darren Burrows) show little patience for “ducks,” or the new guys who chatter away about their problems. Always inches away from bursts of anger and worse, the group takes in famed rocker Soren (Sebastian Roche), who proves to be a handful for even the group’s kindly sponsor and counselor Brandon (Harry J. Lennix).
Film is adept at creating a sense of imbalance and tension, byproduct of both the cast (many from New Crime theater company, where Quinn directs) throwing themselves into the roles with gusto and of Robert Benavides’ digital lensing, full of coloristic effects and the occasional experimental lens. At the same time, Gillie’s script clearly demarcates each main character in the ensemble, never blurring them into an indifferent mass of stereotypes.
Cesar, for example, is good-natured, but splits his time between bouts of sex with various gals and driving the L.A. streets, coming perilously close to his old drug haunts. Franky is steeped in unfocussed rage, which later emerges in ugly racial terms. Joe may be cocky around the guys, but goes silently shy around women. Perhaps worst off is Soren, engaged in rampant self-destruction and embroiled in n ugly divorce, explaining at one point his chemical needs: “I want my brain quiet.”
None of them is much driven to actually recover, and their teetering lives are sometimes made worse by newcomers like Clarence (an effective William Sanderson), whom Cesar engages in a unique “card reading” to get at his personality flaws. This and other bits inject comedy into what could have been an unmitigated trip into hell, but when tragedy strikes in the last 30 minutes, it comes like a bolt out of the blue. Rather preachy final reel extols the tenets of the 12-step program forged by Alcoholics Anonymous, capped with an engaging speech by counselor William (Thomas Jefferson Byrd).
While early passages give the impression of thesps on the loose, perfs coalesce into truly memorable portraits, especially from Boyar, Burrows, Gillie, Roche and Lennix, who doesn’t require any scenery-chewing to command the eye and ear.
The combined influences of Cassavetes and Dogma 95 are unmistakable in tech package, and vid work is never a deterrent from the visual design.