Though the subject matter isn’t especially fresh, the performance of young Harry Eden as the 10-year-old son of a hopelessly heroin-addicted mother elevates this potentially depressing delve into the ripple effect of drug dependency. Though far from an easy sell, “Pure,” with its lean and muscular direction from Gilles MacKinnon, could find its way in niche markets with critical support and a savvy sell, with the exceptional lead performance the peg on which to handle marketing strategies.
At times, this story about the almost insuperable hurdles placed in the way of a tenacious and good-humored little boy unavoidably reminds of Francois Truffaut’s first feature, “The 400 Blows.” The comparison begins with the lead performance, as there seems to be a complete identification by Eden with his character of Paul, the oldest of two brothers, who is forced to grow up very fast and whose world is confined by forces completely outside his control.
Opening scene is a heart-breaker, in which Paul awakens his sleeping mother, Mel (Molly Parker) with cigarettes and her “medicine” — a syringe filled with heroin that he’s confidently prepared for her, having watched her do it herself countless times. Only when he’s about to leave for school does he touchingly reveal that today is his birthday — his mother had completely forgotten.
Mel and her two boys live in a small house in West Ham, London. Her husband has died of a heart attack, and her sour mother-in-law (Geraldine McEwan) bitterly accuses Mel of killing him by giving him too much fatty food. There’s no love lost between the widow and her in-laws, a situation exacerbated by Mel’s addiction.
Mel’s lover, Lenny (David Wenham), is the local pimp and pusher, and was her late husband’s best friend from childhood. Lenny supplies drugs to the neighborhood users, and sleeps with many of his female clients, including Louise (Keira Knightley), a pretty, vulnerable waitress whom Paul has befriended. Louise is pregnant, and claims not to be a junkie because she smokes crack rather than mainlining.
Mel’s best friend is Vicki (Marsha Thomason), a black hooker and fellow user, so every adult in Paul’s life, except for his grandparents, are addicts of one kind or another. Yet the boy is naive enough not to believe that his mother is really a junkie. When Vicki o.d.s and Mel simply gives her dead friend’s baby girl away to a man on a bus who claims to be a doctor, Paul is sick with rage and frustration.
He makes his mother promise to stop using, but Mel’s resolve to go cold turkey is weakened by to the intervention of the odious Lenny. To add to Paul’s woes, a tenaciously intrusive police inspector (Gary Lewis) is constantly badgering the lad to help him find how Lenny brings the drugs into the neighborhood.
Pic’s bleakest scene has Paul, who has given up any hope that his mother will fulfill her promise to give up drugs, deciding to try crack for himself. He persuades Louise, who is out of it and getting worse by the day, to help him, and the impact of the drug is immediate and overwhelming. It’s a powerful, and extremely disturbing, sequence.
Louise, beautifully played by Knightley, tells Paul that things could be even worse: Her mother had given her away, and “a junkie mum’s better than no mum.” But that assertion proves debatable.
The casting of a Canadian actress and an Australian actor to portray two working class Londoners seems at first to be rather odd, but both Parker and Wenham overcome the accent obstacles with distinction. But the film belongs to Eden, who creates a winning personality out of a combination of vulnerability, resourcefulness, toughness and fragility. It’s an outstanding juvenile performance.
MacKinnon’s career thus far has been uneven, but “Pure” is certainly one of his most achieved productions to date, despite an intrusive and at times inappropriate music score. Particularly fine is John de Borman’s widescreen lensing, which favors high angle shots and lateral tracking shots and which vividly brings to life the streets, dingy homes and cafes which are the tent of the world inhabited by these stunted people. Pic ends on a note of hope, although the future of Paul and his brother must still be an uncertain one.