“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.