In this week’s minor VOD releases, drug abuse and pandemics are fodder for exploitation movies, but folk singers and Italian villagers make for better company.
Body Brokers (VOD February 19): Snide voiceover narration and rapid-fire graphics open writer-director John Swab’s addiction drama, which attempts to construct a Big Short-style expose of the drug-treatment industry. Those cynical trappings are just cover for a pretty standard story of addiction and recovery, following heroin addict Utah (Jack Kilmer) from seedy Ohio motels to a swanky detox facility in California. Once he gets clean, Utah is initiated into the shady world of “brokers,” who take kickbacks for recruiting junkies into repeat rehab stints, so that the treatment centers can bilk insurance companies. The second half aims for a Wolf of Wall Street vibe as Utah’s mentor Wood (Michael K. Williams) leads him into further illegal activity. Rather than shocking and revelatory, though, it comes off as scolding and didactic, with misguided blame targeting the Affordable Care Act. The acting is solid, and some of the scams are intriguing, but the message fails to land. Grade: C+
Alone With Her Dreams (VOD and DVD February 23): Director and co-writer Paolo Licata paints an evocative portrait of life in a small fishing village in this Italian coming-of-age drama, in which a young girl is left behind to live with her grandmother when her parents emigrate to France for better economic opportunities. Lucia (Marta Castiglia) is spirited and inquisitive, discovering various family secrets as she wanders around town and gets into mild trouble. Licata builds a strong sense of place in the small details, with warm, sun-dappled visuals. The vague time period makes it hard to tell whether the village is stuck in the past or representative of its era, and other thematic elements are left disappointingly indistinct, including some dropped subplots. The story takes a sharp turn into melodrama in its final act, overdoing the tragedy and losing some of its bittersweet sensibility. But the characters remain vividly drawn, and the elegiac tone comes back around by the end. Grade: B-
The Independents (Virtual cinemas February 26): The members of folk band The Sweet Remains star as fictionalized versions of themselves in this charming, low-key dramedy about never giving up on your artistic ambitions. Part-time English professor and grad student Rich (Rich Price) and campus maintenance worker Greg (Greg Naughton, who also wrote and directed) form an impromptu musical partnership after a chance meeting, later adding mysterious nomad Brian (Brian Chartrand) when they pick him up hitchhiking. The result is sort of like Once if both main characters were dorky middle-aged dudes—and there were actually three of them. The trio hits the road for a music festival and then a potential label showcase, and there’s some manufactured drama featuring a slick talent agent played by Richard Kind. Mostly, though, there are gentle folk songs and gentle ruminations about getting older, from three guys who are clearly in perfect harmony with each other. Grade: B
Safer at Home (VOD and select theaters February 26): With the found-footage video-chat format of Host and the COVID-inspired dystopian setting of Songbird, this quarantine-bound thriller pushes all the corona-sploitation buttons, but it already feels dated and stale. Opening with recycled news footage, Safer at Home extrapolates to two years in the future, when COVID-19 has mutated into several deadlier strains, killing hundreds of millions. That’s not really relevant to the birthday celebration for Evan (Dan J. Johnson), whose friends are in various videoconferencing windows. They all agree to take some designer drugs, but when something bad happens to Evan’s girlfriend Jen (Jocelyn Hudon), being super-high doesn’t seem so appealing anymore. The early banter about relationships and frustrations is more engaging than the increasingly far-fetched thriller plot, which reduces half the characters to spectators and invites the typical found-footage question of why this stuff is still being documented. The world-building is sloppy, the character motivations are questionable, and the COVID connection is dubious. Grade: C
Tyger Tyger (VOD and select theaters February 26): Writer-director Kerry Mondragon sets up a near-future world overrun by a pandemic of some sort, for which ultra-expensive drugs are the only treatment, but he abandons those ideas pretty quickly once outlaws Blake (Sam Quartin) and Luke (Dylan Sprouse) make their way from Los Angeles to a remote desert enclave. What starts out as a vaguely post-apocalyptic criminals-on-the-run drama turns into an aimless hangout movie in a Burning Man-style art collective. Shot mostly in Slab City in the Southern California desert, Tyger Tyger mixes its fictional characters with real inhabitants of this outsider-art community. The plot essentially disappears, and the rebels bringing life-saving medication to the fringes of society turn into tour guides to hipster art installations. The art is cool, and Mondragon often shoots it with style, accompanied by pulsating indie rock, but that just means that Tyger Tyger would have been better off as a music video. Grade: C