“No one gives a rat’s a— about me,” bemoans Mallory, a recovered drug addict faced with the triple-threat challenges of homelessness, unemployment and depression in Helena Trestikova’s simply titled “Mallory.” The movie proves her wrong, of course. Those familiar with Trestikova’s oeuvre know the respected (yet still under-recognized) Czech helmer invests years — nay, decades — in her subjects, chronicling the transformation of real people over time. Clearly, Trestikova does care about Mallory, and audiences will, too, after watching this condensed account of 13 years in the life of an otherwise-unsung hero, captured via the director’s unique “time collection” approach.
Trestikova graduated from Prague’s FAMU film school 10 years after “Seven Up!” director Michael Apted, and she adopts a similar time-lapse style to her work. Instead of checking in at regular intervals, however, Trestikova maintained ongoing contact with those she documented, often missing the most eventful moments in their lives, yet still managing to create a complete and well-rounded portrait through the sheer depth and duration of her coverage.
Mallory’s case serves as an optimistic counterbalance to the director’s 2010 feature “Katka,” which witnessed a heroin junkie’s ongoing battle with addiction over the course of 14 years. Meanwhile, “Mallory” begins with a pregnant drug user vowing to kick the habit in order to be a better mother, and it depicts the determined woman’s monumental fight to stay clean — which she does, against incredible odds. “I loved heroin as carnally as a woman loves a man,” she confesses early on, and later, we see the cravings all but consuming her, but Mallory prevails.
This Czech woman’s story resonates not only in her native country, but especially at the Karlovy Vary Intl. Film Festival, where the pic won top documentary honors, given fest president (and local acting legend) Jiri Bartoska’s unique and entirely coincidental role as Mallory’s real-life guardian angel. In a story described via voiceover and abstractly reconstructed in the film (a rare breach of vérité rules, still not as troubling as a faux-subjective sequence that accompanies a potentially suicidal voice message later), Mallory was crossing Prague’s scenic Charles Bridge one night, practically at rock bottom, when Bartoska gave her 2,000 Koruna (about $80) and a life-changing pep talk.
Trestikova opens with footage of Mallory shot in 2002, appearing in what could have been one of many potential audition interviews: a lean and somewhat desperate-looking young woman, whose rebellious past and heavy-metal punk attitude are clearly chastened by imminent motherhood. Oddly, the helmer (whose working method demands that she divide her time between subjects, any number of whom might support their own films one day) skips the next eight years of Mallory’s tough-luck life, rejoining her under completely transformed circumstances.
How the helmer caught up with Mallory, much less recognized her, might have been an interesting detail to include, considering that the down-and-out ex-junkie appears to have aged several decades between 2002 and 2010. Though clean, she was living out of her drug-addicted boyfriend’s beat-up red Peugeot, on the brink of losing her son, Krystof, to state care. From that point forward, Trestikova checks in with Mallory roughly every three months. Shooting casually on lowish-resolution video, she tags along to visit Krystof in an asylum, or more depressing still, into the bowels of the Czech social welfare system — the arcane bureaucratic labyrinth that once inspired Kafka feels comically inept all these years later — where flats are offered once a year via Christmas lottery.
As in Trestikova’s other work, the helmer’s sincere interest in her subject whittles away whatever prejudice audiences might have toward addicts, thieves, outcasts and other so-called “losers.” Instead, we come away from her films sensitive to the fact that had fate’s whims wafted another way, we could conceivably find ourselves in her subjects’ shoes. Of course, “Mallory” is no different, illustrating not just the effects of homelessness, but also addiction, interpersonal codependency and, in a troubling third-act twist, physical abuse at the hands of a new lover.
If not necessarily as gripping or personal as her previous longer-term portraits (in “Rene,” the title character destroyed the invisible barrier with his director by actually stealing her camera to shoot porn films), the film offers hope, at least. The pic ends with a tragic loss and astounding recovery as Mallory studies to become a social worker, completing the circle of empathy and support the film itself represents.