Meth Head stars Lukas Haas as Kyle Peoples, a man in his mid-thirties who appears, at first glance, to be leading a fairly happy life. Scratch beneath the surface, though, and the tiny cracks in the facade are evident. Kyle's family obviously cares about him but his relationship with his father, an ambitious alpha male who fears his political career will be negatively impacted by his son's sexual orientation, is strained at best and, at times, outright acrimonious. Kyle's own career ambitions are little more than pipe dreams and his reality is an accounting job that he loathes. Even his engagement to boyfriend Julian (Wilson Cruz) is a source of frustration, since Julian is more grounded, succesful and contented with his life than the restless, dissatisfied Kyle.
When Kyle and Julian attend a swanky fundraiser one night they cross paths with Dusty (Blake Berris), a charismatic young dealer who offers them each a bump of crystal meth. From there Kyle's life quickly spirals out of control as he succumbs to his addiction to the drug. His relationship with his family and his fiance deteriorates and, having alienated everyone else in his life, Kyle eventually moves in with Dusty and his friend Maia (Necar Zadegan). The trio attempt to create a sort of surrogate family together but what happiness they find in each other's company is short lived as their addiction soon blinds them to everything else in their lives and they are forced into increasingly dangerous and horrific situations in order to secure that next fix. When Kyle eventually faces the harsh truth that the drugs are killing him he must decide if he's going to give himself over to them or fight to regain control of his life.
Watching Meth Head last week got me thinking about other drug addiction movies I'd seen and the two that first came to mind, the ones that made the most lasting impression on me, were Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream. Both are powerful, harrowing movies but, in each, there's an element of the surreal that offsets the horror of the situation. That's not to say that either film is easy to watch (or glorifies drug use), just that that slight disconnect with reality acts as a buffer, of sorts, between the audience and the poor souls whose lives are unraveling up on the screen. There's no buffer from the brutality in Meth Head. And I really felt for the characters, not just because they were suffering so much but because, even at their lowest, they were genuinely appealing.
I love the middle section of the movie, when Kyle moves in with Dusty and Maia, partly because it offers the lightest moments in the narrative but also because the dynamic between the three characters is fascinating. Kyle and Dusty could hardly be more different from one another but their motivations seem to stem from similar sources. Both have family members who love them and express concern for them but the two men seem to be out of step with their loved ones. There's an almost childlike quality about both of them that's heartbreaking, as if they're too immature and aimless to realize their dreams and see no alternative but to opt out and surrender themselves to their vices. And if they're the lost boys Maia is their Wendy, who tries to care for the people in her life that matter to her but fails because she can't even care for herself.
Clark's compassionate writing, her nonjudgemental approach to her characters, is one of the reasons Meth Head is so rewarding to watch. Another reason is the actors, who all do terrific work. Lukas Haas plays Kyle with so much nervous, aggravated energy that it's easy to believe he's entirely ill at ease inside his own skin. It's a jarring performance and it puts us right into the headspace of a man who is awkward and uncomfortable enough with himself that the desire to disconnect and escape his own reality makes perfect sense. Necar Zadegan is adept at projecting Maia's cool, collected exterior as well as the hurt and melancholy that's hidden underneath it. And Blake Berris - in my not entirely unbiased opinion - is utterly compelling as Dusty. His performance is so effortless, he's so natural and at ease in front of the camera, that it's impossible not to fall prey to his considerable charms. But Berris also has a knack for making difficult characters incredibly sympathetic. He did it with Nick on Days and he does it here, too. There is a sensitivity, a wounded, vulnerable quality to Dusty that made me feel for him even when he was saying or doing hurtful things. It's a terrific accomplishment. There are strong turns from all the supporting players, too, especially Wilson Cruz and Candis Cayne, whose Pinkie provides some much-needed tough love (and a touch of much-appreciated levity) towards the end of the story.
Meth Head is hard, challenging material but if you're up for the challenge it is well worth your time.