Producers: William Woods and Michael Solomon Director: Joey Klein Screenplay: Joey Klein Cast: Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Kiowa Gordon, Keir Gilchrist, Star Slade, Joseph Ziegler, Howard Jerome and Neve Campbell Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Committed performances aren’t enough to save Joey Klein’s downbeat drama about the plight of drug addiction, which doesn’t so much enlighten as depress.
Set in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012 (the year that the province, reacting to opioid-related deaths, removed oxycodone from its drug formularies), “Castle in the Ground” centers on young Henry Fine (Alex Wolff), who cares for his cancer-ridden mother Rebecca (Neve Campbell). Not only does he dutifully crush her painkillers and mix the powder with jelly to make it easier for her to swallow, but he’s decided to postpone going to college until she’s well. The Jewish lad also prays intensely for her recovery. It’s no wonder that the home situation casts a pall over his relationship with his girlfriend (Star Slade), who’s college-bound.
The closeness between mother and son, effectively caught by Wolff and Campbell, is occasionally disturbed by the loud music from the apartment across the hall—a place occupied, Henry learns, by Ana (Imogen Poots), a recovering opioid addict occasionally visited by sketchy friends Jimmy (Tom Cullen) and Stevie (Kiowa Gordon), whose pounding on her door sounds like bombs going off.
When Rebecca passes—after persuading her son to increase her medication, against the doctor’s instructions—Henry is inconsolable, even refusing his uncle’s offer of help at her memorial rituals. Encountering Ana at a pharmacy where her request to fill a prescription was refused, he agrees to give her a ride; she takes the opportunity to manipulate the boy to become an enabler. It’s not long before he’s using his mother’s remaining drugs himself, and getting implicated in a scheme Ana and her friends have concocted to steal a bag of OxyContin from her connection, a young fellow named Richard (Keir Gilchrist) whom she insists, much to his annoyance, on calling Polo Boy.
What follows is Henry’s spiral into addiction, and his ever-closer relationship with Ana, whose actions have created a situation that endangers them both. From this point “Castle in the Ground” becomes both a grim portrait of the horrors of their dependency on both drugs and each other, and—much less effectively—a thriller in which they have to deal with the dark forces behind the trade in illegal substances.
The supporting performances in the film are all accomplished enough, but it really hinges on the lead turns. Wolff brings his customary sensitivity to the emotionally fragile Henry, capturing the character’s vulnerability as he embraces a new outlet for his inclination to support someone after his mother’s death—a sort of psychological act of displacement in which Henry’s handing over of his mother’s cell phone to Ana is practically symbolic. But too much of the footage is devoted to watching him wake up in a daze after taking drugs, or smearing mirrors to symbolize the impaired view of the world in which he’s increasingly trapped.
Poots is a more vivid presence; she certainly conveys the way in which Ana can switch on a dime from being almost waiflike to thundering out demands and insults. She makes Ana a frighteningly volatile figure, but since the character’s background is never fully fleshed out, she can’t invest her with much of an interior life or make her irresistibility convincing. It’s a performance that has surface power, but not much underneath.
Klein and his collaborators—especially production designer Zosia Mackenzie and cinematographer Bobby Shore—invest “Castle in the Ground” with a bleak look that captures the grubbiness both of the setting and of the lives being lived within it. But except for a few scenes where the action ratchets up, especially toward the close, Jorge Weisz’s editing is so ponderous as to be funereal—a choice that accentuates the somber atmosphere, but too often simply inviting tedium. (The decision to abruptly go to black at certain points in Henry’s deterioration, moreover, may be meant to be disorienting but comes across as affected.) Chris Hyson’s brooding score adds to the prevailing mood of unrelieved gloom.
In praise of “Castle in the Ground,” one can say that Klein certainly doesn’t sugarcoat the sad reality of opioid addiction, but neither does he dramatize it in a consistently compelling way, despite the strenuous efforts of his leads.