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Thousand Junkies, A
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by Jay Seaver

"A dark, dark comedy looking to score."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: At some point during "A Thousand Junkies", a viewer will likely think it's getting dark, but of course it's been dark since the start, when its main trio got into their beat-up Volvo to score their first heroin of the day, and starting to get strung out really just emphasizes what the oddball banter had been hiding. It's a humanizing though not particularly sympathetic look at being that far into addiction, though I've got no idea how accurate it may be.

Tommy (Tommy Swerdlow) is the guy with the car, and he starts his day before 7am, picking up T.J. (TJ Bowen) and Blake (Blake Heron), and putting in a call to Jimmy, their favorite dealer, who will, as the day goes by, always seem just out of reach. In the meantime, they chase down other leads, like Igor (Dinarte de Freitas), a rich Russian kid that Blake knows who doesn't like to shoot up alone; they'll also think back to how they met and how they got the car.

This is a story set in Los Angeles, so it's almost fitting that the car gets an origin story of its own; it's an indispensable part of the group, and as run-down, desperate for fuel, and close to collapse as its human occupants. It's not a character in the movie, but it's a necessary part of the framing: Director Tommy Swerdlow shoots a lot of scenes through the windshield, of course, but it's also important as the only true home these three have - they may have places where they sleep, but those belong to other people. The car is the only place or piece of the scenery that is constant as the men travel from one neighborhood to another, never letting a true sense of place build up. And when they finally start to get desperate enough to turn on each other, the car is part of that, too.

It's weirdly entertaining getting there, even if it shouldn't be. The audience can have a good laugh or ten at an entertainingly-mismatched group of characters and a bunch of frustrations that are individually very relatable and frustrating. Take the basic form of these jokes away from the context, and it's good character comedy; everybody has tried to make connections only to have the other person stay just out of reach, or waxed nostalgic about something outsiders just wouldn't get, or having one guy in the group that has a short fuse. It plays almost like an exercise - how funny is this before you remember that the joke is specifically about trying to score drugs?

If Swerdlow and his cast had just gone through the exercise, A Thousand Junkies would be an ugly movie, a cynical attempt at envelope-pushing that would seem to have little point, but he and co-writer TJ Bowen do allow their characters to start to break down, transferring that off the page to their performances along with Blake Heron as the group's hothead. It's an impressive swing for a relatively short film, as they quickly find a rhythm that's comfortable enough to be amusing but has all the seeds for things coming apart planted. They make the characters' increasing desperation entirely plausible despite there being no visible external pressure, and as they start to interact with more outsiders, they're able to do a fine job of bringing out the worst in these people without making them seem either evil or tragic in a sympathetic way.

If there's a major flaw, it's that the cast doesn't necessarily sell the group's physical anguish as the day goes on and they feel more sick. That they literally don't feel like they can live without heroin is something that they have talked up a bit, but they never really seem to go from "anxious" to "sick". Maybe that's part of the point - that at a certain point, the tragedy is not that they're destroyed but that they can't imagine not doing drugs and this changing their ways, even though they probably can. It makes for a movie that maybe doesn't stray as far from the black comedy as it is aiming to - the moments when things are going well are more memorable than the ones when they are not - but still works on that level.

(Important note: Co-star Blake Heron died in September, shortly after leaving rehab; no illegal drugs were found at the scene and he had a severe case of the flu beforehand. This review is an expansion of one written upon seeing the film in July, and reflects that context; re-watching it now would almost certainly elicit a different reaction.)

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originally posted: 11/13/17 08:44:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Tommy Swerdlow

Written by
  TJ Bowen
  Tommy Swerdlow

  TJ Bowen
  Dinarte Freitas
  Blake Heron
  Bill Pullman
  Tommy Swerdlow
  Steven Weber

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