We All Fall Down is not a bad film. It has a touching premise—in memory of Phylis Katherine (Tracey) Cummins, mother of director, co-writer, and actor, Martin Cummins—and the story, while starting out a bit slow, builds on the raw, dark honesty of the story and characters. With a few exceptions, there really isn’t anything that makes this melancholy movie stand apart from other films about the downward spiral of a young artist and actor trying to navigate and survive a harsh world. Though it does offer the gritty reality and quirky details of an independent film, as a whole it feels like one of those films you’ve seen before. This may be one reason why this 2000 Canadian independent film was not released on DVD until 2008.
The film revolves around Michael (Darcy Belsher), Kris (Martin Cummins), and Ryan (Francoise Robertson) though there are many supporting characters from concerned friends to comedic relief. Several characters play important roles in Michael’s life such as Bruce (Nicholas Campbell), the diner owner and father figure who kind of looks out for Michael, and Sherry (Helen Shaver) who plays a philosophical drug-addicted prostitute who rambles on and on about random subjects like fingers and furniture. The characters aren’t there to fill space but rather, to provide points of reflection for Michael’s character and the film itself.
After the death of his mother, Michael turns to hard drugs, via his best friend, Kris. For a long time it was only Michael and his mother (he refers to his father as “more of a pen pal”). And at one point, when a friend, Tom, (Richard Burton) challenges Michael to deal with his pain, Michael remarks that it has been 15 days since she died, the longest he has gone without talking to her in his life.
After drug-induced hallucinations of his mother Michael realizes that he cannot continue to use drugs like Kris and that he wants to live. A friend (Tracey) gets into a car accident after getting high with Kris, Michael spends some time in the woods to try and get clean, and Ryan decides she has to leave Kris. All of this leads to emotional exchanges between characters and a romantic relationship between Michael and Ryan. Just when Michael sets out to get a fresh start, an event from earlier in the film brings the story full circle. A man, “Red Shoes” (Ryan Reynolds), that a strung-out Michael beat to near death over a sour drug deal, comes back to take his revenge. And Tim (René Auberjonois), the resident homeless man, calls out “the sky is falling” over and over again as Michael’s life flashes before his eyes—literally on screen.
What is most commendable about this film is the role that the supporting cast of characters play in the story. In some cases, like Tracey’s character, the function seems only to be a kind of scapegoat or martyr to the world of drugs. Some characters act as friends that balance out the more (self-)destructive elements in Michael’s life like the sensitive roommates (Tom and a token black friend, Emmett) that Michael mostly watches work and jokes around with (and Tom helps him get sober). There are also some touching details such as Kris’ ability to buy perfect-fitting dresses for Ryan and entertaining moments like the water gun fight. These small elements give the film its flavor, when taken all together, give the story and characters dimension.
Most notable are those characters at the margins of society that find a place in this urban landscape: the drug-addicted prostitute, Sherry, who exchanges blow jobs and/or conversation for a hit; or the perpetually present homeless man, Tim, who provides a reflection on the characters and the world through his commentary as he stands outside the diner Michael frequents regularly. In Michael’s life these marginal characters are friends and he has meaningful, non-judgmental exchanges with them.
The sparse DVD extras provide a “behind the scenes” look at the making of the film as well as the US and European trailers. The trailers make the film look far more exciting, dramatic, and action-packed than it really is though, it does a good job of representing the various elements of the film. The behind the scenes feature reveals insights into the script, setting, and actors, but most importantly, into the personal nature of the film, the way in which it helped Cummins restore his sanity, as Shaver explains, and the independent spirit of the film and its making.
There are some larger messages in this film to be pondered, such as the ironies of life, our lack of control over our lives, the need to be responsible for our actions, the way that drugs can completely change a person’s life. However, the social commentaries, while woven into the larger drama in this film are, perhaps, a bit heavy-handed at times. For instance, when Sherry goes on about the particle board furniture conspiracy or the conversation Michael has in the coffee shop where John (Barry Pepper), a diner employee, laments the sexual irony of the personal ads, or when Bruce lectures him on the value of free will.
Despite these moments, or perhaps because of them, We All Fall Down is more than just a film about drugs or survival. It is about the ways in which we move through our lives, what we notice and what we don’t, and what we are left with when it all falls down.