In its opening scenes, the grief drama “Castle in the Ground” looks like it’s going to be a sweet, simplistic film about family bonding. The story begins with Henry (Alex Wolff) taking care of his sick mother (Neve Campbell), nursing her to health with daily prescriptions. He cares for her deeply, prays for her constantly, and drives her to church on Sundays despite Sudbury’s chilly weather. He even ditches his girlfriend one night to see if his ailing mother is alright. She isn’t. Shortly after that opener—a string of selfless acts establishing Henry as a good kid—the film shifts tones. Once mom passes, Henry finishes off her leftover painkillers, sending him into a seedy underworld in search of more pills while never pointing fingers at his habit. This blistering film about addiction doesn’t judge the abusers, instead offering an intimate view into a world of hurting people lost in a maze of peer pressure, letting us see how a nice guy like Henry can turn to hard drugs.
The writer-director Joey Klein, in his sophomore feature, efficiently sets the grim scene with a desaturated palette and a square aspect ratio reflecting our character’s feeling of confinement. He also gives us a view of Canada we aren’t accustomed to (aren’t Canadians supposed to be nice?). Henry’s neighbor, Ana (Imogen Poots), runs the IHOP equivalent of a crack house, with strangers arriving hungry and leaving happy 24 hours a day. Most are rude; some even verbally crude. So Henry is surprised when Ana, whimpering like a lost puppy after being denied prescriptions at a local pharmacy, turns out to be a pleasant gal. After introducing himself, he gives her a ride home, stopping at dubious locales you will recognize from other “drugs ruining kids” movies.
There are several obvious influences for “Castle in the Ground,” such as the Canadian drug dealers in “Little Woods,” the drifting family of addicts in “Drugstore Cowboy,” or the nightmarish descent to hell in “Requiem for a Dream.” “Castle in the Ground” could use a dose of those film’s artistry—it’s kind of a drag stylistically speaking—but Klein’s film does share those others’ spotlight on how one pill can start a never-ending cycle of decay. The more Henry and Ana make poor decisions, the more our heart goes out to them.
“Poor decisions” might as well be the motto of the young duo, though Klein makes sure every choice they make is understandable, with a keen sense of how a teenage mind works. Henry, for example, is reluctant at first to keep popping pills, remembering how much pain they caused his mother. But friendships are a teen’s priority, and Ana provides that for Henry with a catch—to hang out with Ana means to get high with Ana. It also means getting involved in a subplot involving her stolen bag of oxy. Moments later they are being chased by a white van and an unconvincing drug lord named Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrest), ultimately leading to a worst-case scenario for teens experimenting with drugs. Chris Hyson’s ambient score and well-timed fade-outs compliment the chaos.
It’s a testament to the strength of Wolff and Poot’s performances that, for all their “What the hell are you doing!” moments, the audience never loses sympathy for the characters, desperately hoping, sometimes even pleading at the screen, for circumstances to change. Your heart goes out to the characters, even when they are loopily stumbling around Henry’s apartment like extras from “The Walking Dead.” They sell the idea—to the audience and themselves—that “things will get better.” But Klein delivers more of a warning than a hopeful film. Like the opioid finales of “Mccabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Flowers of Shanghai” and “Once Upon a Time in America,” there is no light at the end of the tunnel; only lighters sparking a haze of perpetual, inescapable grief. [B-]
“Castle in the Ground” arrives on VOD on May 15.