Asthma Dir. Jake Hoffman

[IFC Films; 2015]

Styles: pastiche, drama, drugs
Others: Drugstore Cowboy, Permanent Midnight, The Panic in Needle Park

Capturing the interior experience of a drug addict without resorting to sensationalism is an exceptionally difficult thing to do, which probably goes a long way in explaining why most visual depictions of drug addiction tend to focus on its outside physical ramifications to hint at the lived experience with which they’re trying to grapple. And whereas some filmmakers are more than capable of doing just that, Jake Hoffman’s feature-length debut finds the young director attempting a pastiche of bygone films that have to greater or lesser degrees honed in on the emptiness and pointless (self) destruction of doing hard drugs, but managing to elude their gravitas, leaving us with a somewhat tired rehash of washed-out heroin chic that ends on an unfortunate moralistic note.

Asthma begins with an introduction to our main character. Gus (Benedict Samuel) is an aimless and semi-homeless New York heroin addict working as a house painter and not taking much of anything seriously until he decides to hang himself. Unsuccessful in his attempt and covered in white paint, he does the next best thing and swindles his effete, aging drug dealer into giving him a bunch of drugs on credit and then promptly steals a classic Rolls Royce. Taking into account the story and character he’s given to work with, Samuel does just about as good as you could hope for, playing Gus with as much nuance as he can despite some truly impossible and cringingly melodramatic sequences. Hoffman seems unsure in these early sequences about what exactly he’s trying to portray, vacillating between equal parts annoying entitled man child and cliched deep troubled soul. It turns out balance isn’t as simple as finding a boring middle between two annoying extremes.

Feeling the unbridled rush of driving in a fancy stolen car (and also drugs), Gus picks up Ruby (Krysten Ritter), a tattoo artist he knows from the neighborhood. Ritter’s performance in this film is great and effortless, and she’s (as is becoming increasingly the case these days) the brightest spot in an otherwise forgettable work. Why she would hop into a car with Gus is never quite justified, which is irksome considering how far out of his way Hoffman seems to go to make Gus as unappealing and boring as possible in the first couple scenes of the movie. Regardless, it becomes apparent pretty quickly that Ruby isn’t the best at making healthy life choices.

After a faux-deep encounter with a dead deer somewhere on a country road in Connecticut and a wild night in the woods, Gus and Ruby show up at a musician ex-boyfriend’s house where some weird new sect of Hinduism seems to just sort of hang around. Parallels between Gus and Holden Caulfield are at this point as apparent as they are tiresome, and he might as well just call them all phonies at this point to really drive the point home. This middle section of the film blends all too blunt and obvious social commentary and a dislike of the spiritual and New Age with a burgeoning relationship between Ruby and Gus that inevitably forces him to acknowledge his issues with heroin. It’s not that any on scene is particularly dreadful, but rather that the narrative drive of the film can’t decide whether to be truly zany or just kind of quirky with a dark edge.

Toward the end of Asthma we learn more and more about Gus’ troubled relationship with his separated parents, although any catharsis this backstory hoped to set up falls flat and seems squarely tacked-on. Hoffman’s aims might be interesting enough, and some sequences indicate a knack for good visual and auditory storytelling, but by cherry-picking the elements of better films about drugs he ends up with an ill-conceived pastiche on his hands that mainly serves to make you want to watch the better films he’s trying to emulate.

Most Read