In the new social-justice action movie Shooting Heroin, the opioid crisis is everywhere. It’s blaring out of news broadcasts on every television and destroying the lives of men, women and (particularly) schoolchildren across all of America. And in the small town of Whispering Pines, Pennsylvania, the local citizens have had enough, ready to take up arms to defend their town against the drug dealers poisoning it. But if you’re thinking this is the perfect Walking Tall-esque exploitation movie throwback, writer-director Spencer T. Folmar has something a whole lot preachier in mind.
This is because Folmar is a Christian faith-based filmmaker. But not just any Christian faith-based filmmaker, mind you. Through the half-dozen self-produced films that this 30-year old wunderkind has made over the last decade or so, he has apparently coined a new subgenre called Hard Faith, which aims to tell grittier stories portraying a more resilient Christianity in the face of life’s hardships. He’s so passionate about Hard Faith that he does public speaking engagements and even wrote a forthcoming book on it (you can pre-order through his website). And there’s certainly few things tougher than America’s very real and very insidious opioid crisis to put a person’s faith to the test.
Spiritual screen hunk Alan Powell (who was also the former front man of Christian rock group Anthem Lights) plays Adam, an army vet and single father who has just returned to Whispering Pines after a tour of duty. What he finds is a different kind of warzone, one that finds opioids flowing freely through the town both over the pharmacy counter and in illicit parking lot exchanges. When Adam’s own sister succumbs to an overdose, he joins forces with Hazel (Sherilyn Fenn, a long way from Twin Peaks), a grieving mother who lost both her sons to opioid addiction (on the same day, no less – the film makes sure to reiterate that point), and crochety old-timer Edward (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) to start a task force. Once deputized by the lackadaisical town sheriff (Garry Pastore), the trio wastes no time getting down to business and shooting… heroin… off the streets, that is.
All that they really do, however, is start a town-wide shaming tour, setting up fake appointments with doctors to call them out for overprescribing or chastising the local pharmacist for filling said prescription. Action-man Adam goes a little harder, chasing down punk dealer kids and vaguely threatening them, leading him to get the kibosh thrown on this whole operation when he gets too physical with a teenager in the school parking lot. But whatever, the kids need to know that DRUGS ARE BAD AND THEY WILL RUIN YOUR LIFE.
Look, the best thing I can say here is that Folmer’s heart seems to be in the right place. The filmmaker apparently grew up in Pennsylvania and witnessed firsthand the opioid epidemic around him so this obviously comes from a personal place. And despite the expected sermonizing, this Hard Faith approach of his at least makes the film a lot less mean-spirited than most Christian entertainment, earnestly trying to reckon with the human cost of opioid addiction while appealing to people’s will to band together for the greater good.
But by micro-focusing in on vilifying the dealers and shaming the users, Folmar misses the greater picture. Yes, the opioid crisis is in full catastrophe-mode but it’s perpetuated by a larger capitalist system that allowed pharmaceutical companies to begin doling out these drugs in dangerous numbers in the first place. Meanwhile, a corrupt government is beholden to this structure, lest they ruffle any feathers with their high-powered corporate friends and, to be frank, a devout Christian fanbase. At the end of the day, rampant drug use is typically aligned with extreme poverty, and a majority of the dealers and users alike engage due to a lack of any other viable options. Once we delve into that problem, then progress can perhaps be made, but by placing all of the responsibility on the downtrodden lower class to stand up and fight the drug war, Folmar has created a scenario that seems ignorant at best and irresponsible at worst. Even if the drugs are wiped off the street, what are the people in Whispering Pines left with anyway?
Meanwhile, the film still falls victim to the aesthetic pitfalls of any low-tier faith-based film, even if Folmar’s spiritual approach differs. With little-to-no visual style, bizarre edits and scene after scene of stilted interactions, Shooting Heroin limply and soberly hangs before your eyes. But somehow, it’s still not quite garishly bad enough to get ironic enjoyment out of.
Since the Christian film market is a more viable business than ever before, he does manage to get a few “name” actors to show up, with Cathy Moriarty, Nicholas Turturro and even Clerks’s Brian O’Halloran making appearances, but they all sleepwalk through the banal dialogue and situations. Sherilyn Fenn probably fares the worst, though, and it’s especially sad to see. Once the It Girl of the early-90s, Miss Audrey Horne has been reduced to playing a hysterical mom, frantically preaching to disinterested looking teens. She deserved a better fate than ending up in treacly, propagandistic-leaning garbage like this.
Shooting Heroin is actually the second indie thriller to drop this year about the opioid crisis, following Anthony Jerjen’s Inherit the Viper from January. That film, which starred Josh Hartnett, Margarita Levieva and Owen Teague as Appalachian opioid dealing siblings who keep the family business going despite ever-encroaching moral dilemmas, was not without its flaws, but at least it had the mettle to try and examine why normal people turn to drugs in an America that couldn’t care less about them. And it did so with an entrancing mood and legitimately exciting action sequences to boot. Check that one out instead.