Dir: Duane Hopkins. 2008. UK. 93mins

Coping as best they can, the perpetually glum inhabitants of a rural town in the South West of England feel emotionally isolated, verging towards distraught in Better Things. Permeated by dispassionate drug use depicted without a shred of glamour, writer-director Duane Hopkins’ debut feature displays considerable craft. There is no plot to speak of. But loosely interconnected mini-portraits gradually deliver cathartic symmetry for those not turned off by so much free-floating sorrow. Undeniable cinematic qualities aside, this ode to persistent distress as experienced by young people and their more resilient but careworn elders will be hard going for many viewers.

The film’s presentation in Cannes ’ Intern ational Critic’s Week - the first British feature to garner a slot in the three years since the similarly-set The Great Ecstasy Of Robert Carmichael - should attract festival programmers and put Hopkins on the radar as a talent to watch. But if Ecstasy… was on uppers, Better Things is on downers, and theatrical outside the UK seems a dim prospect. Those tuning in will find a sadly universal window into seemingly insurmountable despair, leavened by microscopic glimmers of hope.

Gail (McIntyre), a pudgy girl in her early 20s, is housebound with her mother and ailing grandmother due to severe agoraphobia. Of course, it’s not hard to see why a young person would feel crippling trepidation towards the outside world as it’s presented here. Another young woman has recently died of an overdose, leaving her boyfriend Rob (Mcllfatrick) confused and bereft.

For boys and girls alike, losing one’s virginity seems to take a back seat to when to start flirting with heroin, followed by when to inject it. For in this part of the world, amidst reasonably comfortable homes and proximity to nature, hazardous drug use is as much of a given as, say, driving around aimlessly is for teenagers in California.

If for some the needle is a way to escape untenable grief, for others it seems to be the local remedy for crushing boredom. Most conversations depicted are as uncomfortable as a lumpy sofa. Better Things puts particularly wrenching emphasis on two male characters, over half a century apart in age, both tormented by the infidelity of the women in their lives.

Hopkins elicits affecting performances from a mostly non-professional cast, with elderly cast members especially strong as the episodic narrative unfolds. Their faces alone speak volumes in conveying that love’s pain or solace can define a life.

Some may feel the film nails the essence of unenlightened modern life; others may doubt that a place so unrelentingly bleak could exist in tandem with the creature comforts of the 21st century.

Production company
Third Films Ltd

International sales
Celluloid Dreams
(33) 1 49 70 03 70

Samm Haillay
Rachel Robey

Screen play
Duane Hopkins

Lol Crawley

Production design
Jamie Leonard

Dan Berridge

Chris Barwell

Main cast
Rachel McIntyre
Emma Cooper
Liam McIlfatrick
Che Corr
Freddie Cunliffe
Tara Ballard
Betty Bench
Frank Bench
Megan Palmer