The high is potent and long-lasting in "Love Is the Drug," a darkly compelling immersion in the lives of pill-popping teens that admirably steers clear of moralism. While its tale of Tom Ripley-esque obsession becomes repetitive and overwrought in the final stretch, this is still a smartly acted and confident feature debut from helmer Elliott Lester.

The high is potent and long-lasting in “Love Is the Drug,” a darkly compelling immersion in the lives of pill-popping teens that admirably steers clear of moralism. While its tale of Tom Ripley-esque obsession becomes repetitive and overwrought in the final stretch, this is still a smartly acted and strikingly confident feature debut from helmer Elliott Lester, and should prove a worthwhile investment for Alpine Pictures.

Troubled-teen movies are a dime a dozen, especially on the festival circuit, yet “Love Is the Drug” manages to present a cluster of private high school students who drink, smoke, screw and swear a lot without ever seeming vapid or tiresome. Viewer’s point of entry comes courtesy of Jonah Brand (John Patrick Amedori), an impressionable, long-haired geek who has a crush on the beautiful but off-limits Sara (Lizzy Caplan).

Sara finds Jonah cute and intriguing and welcomes him into her exclusive circle, though her friends aren’t as enthused. Sara’s boyfriend Troy (Jonathon Trent) is a spoon-fed pretty boy with little personality. Haughty Erin (Jenny Wade) gives off nothing but attitude. And spiteful Lucas (D.J. Cotrona) bullies the newcomer until he learns that Jonah works at a pharmacy, at which point the possibility of scoring some high-grade meds overrules his reservations.

Sharp screenplay (by Wesley Strick and Steve Allison) and Florian Stadler’s roving handheld camerawork deftly chart the tense undercurrents pulsing through the group, as Jonah ingratiates himself by maintaining a steady supply of pills while seizing every opportunity to impress Sara. When the kids’ out-of-control partying takes a tragic turn at the halfway mark, pic neither overplays the moment nor runs out of steam, instead narrowing its focus on Jonah and Sara’s doomed relationship.

Amedori’s tricky turn as a seemingly innocuous but insidious fifth wheel both makes and breaks the film, commanding audience identification only to subvert it, shockingly, in the final reels. Yet because Lester never fully draws us into Jonah’s obsessions, it’s possible to observe the character’s psychic unraveling without being shattered by it.

Pic’s final melodramatic gesture, which was altered from a more toned-down version in the script, plays like a cheap stunt.

The most vivid characterizations are provided by Caplan, whose seductive but sincere Sara truly does seem as though she could inspire the most dangerous fantasies; and the explosively charismatic Cotrona. Darryl Hannah provides solid support as Jonah’s worried mom, the only parent seen in the film, while Bruce A. Young strikes memorably creepy notes as a neighborhood snoop.

Love Is the Drug

Production

An Alpine Pictures release of a Box Office Prods. presentation of a Carroll Brothers production. Produced by Jed Nolan. Executive producers, Wesley Strick, Ryan Carroll, Roland Carroll, Neil L. Kaufman. Co-producers, Annie Hanlon, Jamee Natella, Lanette Phillips. Co-executive producers, Clement Brooke, Nancy Brooke, Tom Lutz. Directed by Elliott Lester. Screenplay, Wesley Strick, Steve Allison.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Florian Stadler; editor, Steve Rees; music supervisor, Matt Aberle; production designer, Chris Davis; set decorators, Yvonne V. Wallenberg, Jenna Sylvester; costume designer, Allison Freer; sound (Dolby Digital), Manvel Barsegyan; supervising sound editor, Trip Brock; line producer, Pierre Lorillard; associate producers, James Jones, Jason Arnold, Shea Kerry; assistant director, Marty Veselich; casting, Jay Scully, Annie McCarthy. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 22, 2006. Running time: 96 MIN.

With

Jonah Brand - John Patrick Amedori Sara Weller - Lizzy Caplan Lucas Mitchell - D.J. Cotrona Troy Daniels - Jonathon Trent Erin Sutherland - Jenny Wade Phill Hackwith - Bruce A. Young Sandra Brand - Darryl Hannah

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