In the first scene of the documentary Heroin Town, two residents of a notorious Connecticut hotel discuss which movie stars put them into the swooniest states. Matt Damon and Julia Roberts come in for especial praise. And what is it about these marquee idols that sets them apart from the Hollywood pack? Their preternaturally healthy veins, which any self-respecting junkie would kill to own.
It's a deceptively sensational kickoff to a film that isn't specifically concerned with the horrors of addiction and recovery. Rather, Heroin Town is a self-righteous apologia for the town of Willimantic, Conn., a place castigated by The Hartford Courant and TV's 60 Minutes II as a cesspool of drug use. To the residents who were wounded by that media coverage, Willimantic is a mellower environment indeed. Just ask the inhabitants and employees of the unfortunately named Hooker Hotel, which took the brunt of the bad publicity and a subsequent attempt at governmental intervention that threatened to destroy one of the area's last bastions of low-income housing. There's drug use at the Hooker; that, no one denies. But to hear the live-in experts tell it, the problem isn't much more severe at the hotel than anywhere else. Many of them are trying to kick the habit. And anyway, the government has no right to shutter a private business like the Hooker which is just what selectman Mike Paulhus attempted to do.
This is really a story about civil liberties under fire, and it's never more convincing than in a scene in which talk-radio personalities Harry Carboni and Alan Giordano issue a thorough (and thoroughly brilliant) on-air denunciation of the Paulhus-led "renewal" effort. Unfortunately, first-time filmmaker Josh Goldbloom is less persuasive. Though his shot-on-DV movie has a crisp look and an economical 82-minute running time, it lacks variety of both the narrative and ideological types. A recovering junkie himself, Goldbloom doesn't attempt to hide his pro-Hooker bias, which was intensified by a fact-finding stay in the hotel. He puffs up his new friends from behind the camera ("You're a good guy, Mike") and guides their comments with a brazenness even Michael Moore would wince at. The hotel's live-in housekeeper doesn't recognize Paulhus' name until Goldbloom informs her that the politico is one of the ones trying to put her out of her home whereupon she promptly terms him an "asshole." Mission accomplished.
Courant reporter Tracey Gordon Fox is likewise lambasted for authoring a series of articles on the Willimantic smack "epidemic" that attracted the attention of 60 Minutes II. But Fox isn't asked to give her side of the story; she's merely seen skulking away from an outdoor community festival while a Baptist minister, Fred Shapiro, scat-sings an anti-Dan Rather diatribe in the background. A progressive type with a faith in human nature that somehow stops short of the media, Shapiro as a character summarizes everything that's wrong with the film structurally and philosophically. Though he's continually called upon to state what good people the locals are and can be, we never see him interact with any of them, other than to mount his musical displays of civic spirit and network-bashing. "Is there any purpose in an interview that isn't positive?" he vamps, naively. There sure is, padre: It's called the truth, and it's supposed to set you free.
(Screens Friday through Sunday, Aug 12-14, at DMAC; filmmaker Goldbloom will be in attendance at all screenings)