Writer, director, producer and star Monty Lapica largely avoids the vanity-project pitfalls in his semiautobiographical debut feature, “Self-Medicated.” Searing portrait of an out-of-control youth who winds up in a decidedly shady rehab center has more than its share of teen-angst cliches but still makes a surprisingly trenchant tearjerker, thanks to strong acting from all quarters and an especially blistering perf from Lapica. Distrib prospects look slim, but helmer clearly has more ahead of him.
Set in Lapica’s native Las Vegas, pic opens with a glittering survey of the Strip at night, set to Anthony Marinelli’s mournful score. Melancholy mood is abruptly shattered by a carload of joy riders, led by Andrew Eriksen (Lapica), gleefully spraying pedestrians with paintballs from their car window.
It’s business as usual for the troubled teen, who shortly afterward drops out of school, lashes out at his mom Louise (Diane Venora) continually and slides further into drinking and drug abuse.
Or so it seems. Protag’s junkie lifestyle is more alluded to than actually dramatized; ditto Louise, herself an avid pill popper, which only inflames Andrew’s contempt for her. The more persistent malaise is their unresolved grief over the recent death of Andrew’s father.
Story proper gets under way when Louise has Andrew shipped off to juvenile rehab, which turns out to be little more than a prison camp whose “patients” are eventually shipped off to Samoa — presumably, pic suggests without declaring outright, to be exploited for labor. Infuriated, Andrew immediately butts heads with authoritarian Dan (Michael Bowen), a counselor with a sadistic streak, and is repeatedly sent to isolation for foul language.
Drawing on his own past experience in a similar hellhole, Lapica initially intended “Self-Medicated” to be an expose of sorts, and pic does convey an anarchic thrill in detailing Andrew’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”-style attempts to undermine the system. But to the writer-director’s credit, the picture that emerges of the institution is far from one-sided, thanks to Greg Germann’s carefully underplayed turn as a soft-spoken counselor who cuts through Andrew’s cold, sarcastic front.
Pic is on shakier narrative ground once Andrew manages to escape and return home. His subsequent circumstances — ongoing tensions with his mom, attempts to reunite with his friends — have a halting, uncertain rhythm.
Story reaches its nadir when Andrew has a chance encounter with a homeless man (William Stanford Davis) that takes a turn straight out of “Touched by an Angel.” The idea of a powerful spiritual transformation is an intriguing one, but pic already has too much on its plate to deal with it convincingly.
As Andrew, twentysomething Lapica is in “90210” territory — which is to say, a bit old for the part — but his perf is something fierce, and when his veneer finally cracks it packs a startling punch. Venora matches him in intensity, delivering a red-eyed study in emotional exhaustion. Duo’s relationship provides pic with a solid core despite the occasionally glib melodramatics of their dialogue.
Tech contributions are fine, though Denis Maloney’s under lit camerawork came across rather blurry in digital projection at screening caught. The Verve’s “The Drugs Don’t Work,” referenced early on by Andrew, is a fitting choice for the closing credits.