When you see what most “faith-based” films turn out like, it’s a sin.
Modestly budgeted indies made for church-going audiences, their aims are small and their methods predictable. They star a publicly devout actor. They have a central tragedy, which makes the hero question his faith. And then he finds it again, and all is right with the world.
Spencer T. Folmar’s Shooting Heroin is different.
Of course, Folmar is a little different, too. It’s a safe bet no other director has both an MFA in film from NYU and a Master’s in Theology from the Reformed Theological Seminary. Or has found a way to quietly combine those passions in one profession.
Like other faith-oriented films, Shooting Heroin, is still about grace, and redemption; there’s no nudity, little bad language, and its characters go to church. But religion is presented as merely a part of these people’s lives, and the story’s message of understanding is a secular one, too.
Set in rural Pennsylvania, the film takes place in a world where duck decoys sit on doctors’ desks, and the walls in bars are covered in antlers. These are country people, and lately their land has been overrun with hard drugs. The personal toll has been huge.
One man, who lost his sister, now loses himself in drink. Another, seething over the criminals who walk free, talks of vigilante justice. A mother, grieving over two dead sons, gives tearful, just-say-no talks to high-school assemblies.
Eventually, these three people will find each other. And with the help of an overburdened police chief, try to take back their town.
This is already a grittier story than most Christian films dare tackle, and while the film stops short of the “Death Wish” scenario it flirts with, it acknowledges the complications of the situation. A character’s righteous rage only brings more rage. A minister’s well-intentioned march accomplishes little. There are no easy ways out of this.
Helping things along is a cast full of familiar, albeit aging, faces from baby-boomer entertainments. Sherilyn Fenn of Twin Peaks is the bereft mother; Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, of Welcome Back, Kotter, is the angry avenger. Even Cathy Moriarty of Raging Bull makes an appearance as a bitter matriarch, getting in a shouting match over her daughter’s grave.
Unfortunately, Folmar, who’s previously worked on a smaller scale, sometimes seems intimidated by his veteran stars. A more seasoned director would keep an eye on scale and volume; instead each performer overacts their first scene, determined to make an entrance. (Garry Pastore, who plays a local cop, pushes the grubby, burnt-out character into sweaty Burt Young territory.)
But as their characters develop, so do their performances, while star Alan Powell, playing the film’s grieving brother, consistently hits just the right notes. Shooting Heroin may be a faith-based film, but it’s also a real film, with a believable story and its own, well-earned moments.
Ironically, in its urge to follow its own moral compass, sometimes the film loses its way. Its idea of a grimy, blue-collar dive bar isn’t a strip club, but a neon-lit karaoke joint. Yeah, right. And the soundtrack includes a lugubrious song – with lyrics like “When I look in the face of my enemy/I see my brother” – that turns one scene into a sermon.
But at other times, the film’s other limitations – such as its small budget — actually work for it. The location shooting gives everything a feel of awful authenticity. The dozens of locals recruited as extras not only provide crowd scenes that similarly budgeted films can’t manage, they give us real faces.
And a reminder of the real people who are facing this heartland horror every day.