Films about drug addiction tend to have a punishing quality. Even the good ones. I'm thinking of "Drugstore Cowboy" and "Requiem For a Dream," "Trainspotting" and "The Man with the Golden Arm." Full-blown drug addiction is bleak. Why would an honest movie reflect anything else?
What you don't expect are occasional moments of sly humor, which is what makes "Animals," the lovely new Chicago-shot indie, such a wonderful surprise. Written and produced by former Chicago theater actor David Dastmalchian (who also stars), the film screens Thursday at the Music Box Theatre courtesy of the Chicago Critics Film Festival.
Dastmalchian and co-star Kim Shaw play Jude and Bobbie, a couple in their 20s who have a healthy relationship. Except for the drug part. And the living-in-their-car part. Instead of watching "Game of Thrones" together or debating what to make for dinner or griping about their jobs, their time is spent in the daily pursuit of cash (obtained through petty crimes) and heroin.
These are sweet, funny people. Smart too. You wouldn't think twice about having them over to the house for a game night. Looks are deceiving, though; they'd probably case the joint for anything they could pawn later on.
"Animals" grows increasingly dark as Jude and Bobbie's situation becomes unmanageable. But I keep going back to those specks of sardonic comedy threaded throughout the story, particularly in the first act.
"Take this," Jude says, holding out a screwdriver to Bobbie as she heads out on a scam.
"For what?" she says.
"What am I going to do," she says giving him a look, "put up shelves?"
I first wrote about Dastmalchian (who comes to town for Thursday's screening) last fall when he and director Collin Schiffli — longtime friends who met when Schiffli was a film student at Columbia College Chicago — were in town shooting the movie. I hadn't read the script and did not know what kind of tone "Animals" would have. When I caught up with Dastmalchian (who was in LA) by phone, I asked about the humor.
"I didn't envision this as a drug movie," he said. "It's really a love story. And when the person you're sitting next to is the love of your life, those moments of humor are the connective tissue."
It's nice to see Dastmalchian play against type. Often he is cast as an intense man with an unnerving stare. A creep. Possibly a child murderer. But here, he plays a droll, easy-going guy who adores the woman sitting next to him in that dingy car. It's a performance much closer to Dastmalchian's gregarious, companionable energy in real life.
Consider this scene: The couple has just scored and head off to the his-and-hers restrooms of a nondescript dinner, where they can shoot up in privacy. Bobbie realizes she doesn't have a lighter and asks Jude to slide his under the door.
"You want me to slide it across the floor with all the dirty germs?" he says incredulously. The dark joke is punctuated by the needle that is in his arm. You think: Thank God this guy still has his wits about him enough to be grossed out by a germy floor. Even if it the concern is completely absurd, all things considered.
The film, which had its premiere at South by Southwest earlier this year, is a work of fiction. But the emotions and the logistical realities of a junkie's life are rooted in Dastmalchian's own experiences with addiction, which became unmanageable a year or so after he graduated from the Theatre School at DePaul University.
At the time, he lost hold of the things that give stability to a person's life. His nascent career in storefront theater ended abruptly. There were long stretches when he lived in his car. At night he would park on Stockton Drive and other side streets just north of the Lincoln Park Zoo. That provided quick access to Lake Shore Drive during the day, when he would head to the West Side on Roosevelt to score drugs, and then drive back to the tranquil landscape of the park where he could sustain the shaky illusion that things weren't so bad.
"If I had been on Lower Wacker, sleeping down there," he said, "my denial of my reality would have been much harder to maintain, as opposed to when you're in Lincoln Park, surrounded by people running by in brand-new Nikes and state-of-the-art jogging strollers." As a middle-class kid from Kansas, he didn't arouse much suspicion.
He got clean 12 years ago this month, when he began the gradual process of putting his life back together. He started working in theater again. Quite a bit. (I actually reviewed a couple of shows he was in.) A small but memorable role as the Joker's henchman in "The Dark Knight" took him to New York and then LA, where he lives and continues to work steadily (including recent appearances on "Almost Human" and "CSI"). And he has some big casting news that he couldn't disclose just yet.
These days, his life is dramatically different from what it was in those first years out of college.
That includes a wife, Eve (whom he married during the film's production), and their newborn son, Arlo, in Dastmalchian's arms as he talked on the phone.