Cautionary tale of life at the bottom features fine acting and considerable compassion for the down-and-outers who scramble for survival in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, widely considered the poorest neighborhood in all of Canada. Pic has earnest, gritty edge that puts it a cut above tube-type fare, but also makes it unappetizing viewing for mainstream auds.
Cast standout Alex Rice plays Angel, a recently arrived part-time hooker and full-time junkie. Adept at juggling johns, dealers, and riff-raff with cynical aplomb, she appears untouched by the degradation around her, or her own. If there’s anything wrong with Rice’s perf, it’s that she looks a little too healthy for her lifestyle.
That’s not the case with young vet Katharine Isabelle, who is covered with scabs and bruises as Stacey, a pal who lives in the same fleabag hotel where many of the addicts hole up (the real-life Portland Hotel, where helmer-scripter Nathaniel Geary used to work). Stacey lives with a local scumbag (a convincing JR Bourne) who thinks he’s her pimp but is really only looking for enough cash to get his next chunk of crack to smoke.
Into this less-than-cozy scene comes Randy (Simon Baker), Angel’s fresh-faced little brother, who has run away from home looking for big city glamour. Sis reluctantly lets him crash in her tiny room, then moves him over to slightly larger digs with an older Indian (Gordon Tootoosis) who has renounced drugs and booze for a life of collecting cans and bottles. But this career choice is too tame for Randy, who of course gets drawn into increasingly dangerous street games.
Geary’s settings and situations have the ring of harsh reality, but the overall plot arc is numbingly familiar. Everyone here is headed for a fall, and the thuds come with increasing frequency toward the end.
Virtually every scene here involves overt conflict, and the onslaught of confrontations, usually unresolved, proves wearying. Dramatically, a rhythm of fight-and-flight sets in early and doesn’t let up. Geary doesn’t condescend to his characters, but he doesn’t allow them the individuation of personal interests or aspirations either.
Helmer almost ends on the perfect shot — of Angel literally standing on a corner, at a genuine crossroads of her life — and then blows it by turning his restless handheld camera around to see her sobbing, in an excruciating close-up. The combination of visual austerity and predigested emotion undercuts the movie’s integrity, but much of what’s supplied by the actors remains vivid.