‘Back Fork’ deals deftly with drugs and death

A.J. Cook and Josh Stewart in Back Fork

“There’s no tragedy in life like the death of a child.  Things never get back to the way they were.” – President Dwight D. Eisenhower

Movies about drug addiction are not new. Movies about a death in the family are not new. Movies about small rural towns are not new. And yet, Back Fork feels like something fresh and needed.

A compelling and authentic-feeling drama, Back Fork is easily the best film of the year so far, and I have a hunch I’ll still be saying so when it comes to a close.

In a small West Virginia town, it’s been about a year since the death of his young daughter Justine (Sloane Coombs) and Waylon (Josh Stewart, who is also the film’s director, writer, and producer) is still coping with grief. Things soon come to a head. His boss (Ronnie Gene Blevins) at the lumber yard becomes alert after a drug test finds non-prescription opioids in his system. His wife (A.J. Cook), herself hardly able to keep afloat, asks him for a divorce and to move out.

He first stays with his parents (David Selby and Dorothy Lyman), from whom he swipes more drugs, but then goes to live with his sister Raylene (Agnes Bruckner). Hard-partying and then some, she is similarly addicted and resorts to debased methods for obtaining money and substances. Together, they’ll descend further into these depths until their breaking points.

Something rather remarkable about this film is that the initial story events, which other movies would have come much later and then be over before much careful examination can be done, are quickly established and out of the way. By presenting the hardships upfront, the proper time can be devoted to the longer processes that such situations entail. 

There’s also quality of stripped-down-ness to things. Justine’s death happens off-screen and no details are given about the circumstances. And really, none are needed. Likewise, while we’re clued in on Waylon’s introduction to opioids was for his back pains, no such explanation is heard for how Raylene got there. Again, that is unnecessary for the audience’s understanding and would just come across as obvious exposition.

Stewart is on-point in his direction too. While some montages could have been slowed down and given room to breathe, the shots are well-composed and thoughtful with the symbolism. The first scene is of a fish struggling to stay in the water, and this is cut back to time and again as a metaphor for Waylon’s situation. As on the nose as that might sound, it really doesn’t seem clear until it’s returned to for the final shot.

The performances are touching and powerful, particularly Stewart and Cook who turn in magnificent work. Yes, it’s Will and JJ together again, but their dynamic is very different and they play their parts so well that it’s hard to believe that these are the same two actors. The pain and anguish they show, as well as the warmth in what happy moments we see them in, are palpable. Plus, it ought to be said that giving humanity to characters so often represented by negative stereotypes in most of the rest of filmdom is very welcome.

The rest of the cast is quite fine as well, with Bruckner and Selby fantastic in quite possibly their best roles in years. Wade Williams as dealer and town creep also makes an impression. And yes, that is Pinhead actor Doug Bradley in a brief part as the sheriff. 

Stewart should be very proud of himself for pulling off a forceful and stirring production. More than your run of the mill drug/death drama, this is one not to be missed.

5 thoughts on “‘Back Fork’ deals deftly with drugs and death

  1. I also believe it’s about a tragic accident, possibly a car accident with the father. I feel the father feels so much guilt for surviving and his daughter dying. He doesn’t want to talk about it to his wife because inside he’s eating himself alive which is leading him to drug abuse. I think the fish is a metaphor. Possibly Caleb Conway and Bella conway

  2. As a mother who has lost 2 children myself, my oldest son and my youngest daughter. They were healthy and could have lived a beautiful life but it was taken from them and us. Nothing we did or could have done would have changed that. It was very much a traumatic part of our lives and still is. It was due to unforseen circumstances as well. That was not my fault or my husbands. And i blamed god and sometimes still do. 10 years between them. Days go on and just as u think ur starting to get back into living life it happens all over again. Time in between never made it any easier and the pain felt as if it were just yesterday. I learned to hold my cry for my other children. But it hurts more knowing their pain and seeing it when they don’t even know i am. I was as well curious and didn’t understand how that was not relevant. Especially when it something so important and painful that strangers feel. Everyone has a story no one is in more pain then the next because of that story may br more tragic. Everyone feels and handles each situation in their own way. Only our selves know that pain. Sickness and drugs and jail has been a part of our family for many years. It didn’t follow my life nor my husbands just in the family. I couldn’t understand why i was put through so much when i was such a good person. All i ever wanted was a happy family and healthy children. I got it and it was ripped away. I have been sick died and was brought back a couple times. No none of this was due to drug’s. Everyone has always said how strong i was or am. Im so weakened by the life have been delt. Because i don’t understand why i had to lose my children and my mother who was so young also. We do everything right and we have to take each day as it comes i don’t call that being strong. Just being a mom to my other daughters that need me.it mentioned in the story line. We have seen drugs and we have seen death but not together. Well even though the drugs weren’t the cause of the child’s death. Most people have had to take pain pills for many reasons in life. Having a tooth pulled back injury surgery. For a whole year after my youngest died i also was on oain medicine. I had to have 3 surgeries that year. Sall i wanted was to be done because they make you more depressed because they can numb the pain. But again had nothing to do with what happened to my babies. So i get the story in a sincere since. But honestly it felt like my life in everyway. Like someone told you my story. I think it upsets people because this was a huge reason that caused everything to fall apart in the entire film. One scene of a beautiful little girl and then nothing else at all. It doesn’t matter in the since that good people make mistakes also if you have never been there you would never understand. So for that part of the world they needed to know. I can see where it could cause conflict. Also i would like to say thank you. After 20 years together my husband and i were or are i don’t know
    That couple waylon and Nadia. I think my husband seen life through my eyes for a second. Although he has neever been on drugs or addicted to anything. He don’t even smoke or drink. But i think no i know we both felt it. It was our lives all these years. This film may just save us. Us seeing it is normal to change from such amazing people to people we don’t recognize anymore. It is ok to hurt and be so angry. That there is hope to be who we once were. Even knowing life will never be the same. We can be stronger together and communicate to get to where we need to be. So thank you for that. You made a film that is real to many that many have no clue. Thank you Mr. Stewart. Big fans of you and cook.


  3. no details are given about the circumstances and really, none are needed


    It makes a difference if the parents were drugged up and flipped the car and killed the child or someone kidnapped her, etc. Details really do matter and could significantly help make the story more clear. I found myself trying to watch this and look up the reason why the child died and apparently it’s a mystery.

    1. I think it’s assumed it was a tragic accident. As you can see the huge turn around both parents made from the flash back to the present day. They also don’t blame each other for her death, if they were involved I think you would see more of that. There was no hatred to each other – just broken family

      I definitely was curious and wanted to know what happened, but I felt like I could see, feel and understand the entire movie without this info.

      The movie was about so much more than the daughter dying it was about a family being broken after burying a young girl and not being able to cope, thus falling back on drugs

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