The Big, Sour Apple
The “heroin chic” look and movie trend may have gone out with the ‘90s, but despite the morality tales offered by Trainspotting and Permanent Midnight, it never ceased to look at least a little glamorous. Indeed, for all of Trainspotting‘s empty stylization, it did help to explain the appeal of a notoriously destructive drug. At the other end of the junkie movie spectrum, Dog Run has nothing as decadent as stars or as marketable as a Britpop soundtrack and flashy editing. Instead, it has such an earnest sensibility that even its title—which refers to an off-leash dog playground in Tompkins Square Park—seems something of a tough sell.
Selling drugs gets the central characters, Eddie (Brian Marc) and Miles (Craig Duplessis), into their predicament. The two meet in New Orleans, each seeking an escape from his home life. Their friend/dealer in New Orleans sends them on a sales trip, via bus, to sell a small quantity of acid in New York. Clearly, the boys have hit the small time, but they’re too dewy-eyed to realize it. When they run their sales errand, they get screwed out of the full amount—$80 instead of $100, with a dime bag of heroin thrown in—and their connection down south never delivers any additional supplies. Unable to afford a hellhole of a hotel room at $42 per night, the guys sleep out on the street. Without savings or, apparently, dreams, Eddie and Miles become vagrants overnight.
Desperate for money, they decide to sell the heroin. They’ve never touched smack themselves and do not intend to start, but such lack of experience does not deter them. In Tompkins Square Park, Eddie, the more charming and funky-looking of the two, chats up Tara (Lisa Ristorucci). She takes the boys back to her squat in a basement, accessed through a grate in the sidewalk, where she does the heroin but cannot pay with cash. Instead, she pays Eddie with sexual favors; Eddie insists that she blow Miles while getting fucked by him. She seems willing enough, in her drug stupor, but Miles will not have it; he’s the serious one, and upset that they are not getting money for the dime bag. The scene is profoundly ugly, the rawest moment in the film. The characters are not the sympathetic junkies seen in other movies, but revolting cretins who use each other without thinking of the consequences.
The consequence of Eddie and Tara’s exchange is a blossoming romance, even though she admits to the 20-something guys that she is only 16. With a year’s worth of street experience and connections, she finds the guys a building where they can squat. The building, of course, is a space so raw that it does not have any form of plumbing, and fixing up their room involves extensive demolition and touch-up work. Their lives of scraping by continue as they beg on the street for money or hang out in the park. Eddie takes to heroin and the daily life of a junkie. Miles takes to reading at a cafe, where he meets an NYU student named Rachel (Elizabeth Horsburgh). Soon, they begin dating, he starts working at the cafe, and she asks him to move in with her, which he does. Clearly, the relationship involves a class difference between Miles and Rachel, who attends a private school and whose parents pay her rent. Even for all of her downtown leftist good will, she would presumably have doubts about dating a homeless man or asking him to move in with her. But the film never raises this issue, meaning that the characters never have a conversation about it—or about Miles’ lies concerning his homeless status . It seems a glaring narrative omission.
That said, the filmmakers seem intent on creating an accurate portrayal of the experiences of street youth in New York, going so far as hiring homeless kids to work as extras in exchange for food. The refusal to make the squatting and drug-using lifestyle exciting or exaggeratedly excruciating is commendable, and the ups and downs of the central friendship, although familiar in mainstream movies, have a particular ring of truth here. The characters are basically unsympathetic—not as charming, as smart, as sexy as they think each other to be—and bring most of their problems upon themselves. This may be the most daring message of the film: these junkies and homeless kids are not special.
Ultimately, the film is not about straight romance, but about the male characters’ friendship and the lifestyle of runaways and junkies in New York. The film presents mayor Rudy Giuliani’s worst nightmare—the streetlife, petty crime, drug-dealing, and homelessness he so vigilantly tried to erase from the city. In a sense, the city’s cleaned-up image as the nation’s “safest big city” make Dog Run seem simultaneously out of date and refreshingly underground. And, as it turns out, the film is out of date to an extent; it was made more than five years ago and debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in 1996. But the timing also has a subversive element: in the midst of post-September 11 city-wide patriotism and amnesia-induced Rudy-loving, images of those he disenfranchised—the homeless, the prostitutes, the squatters, the drug addicts—suddenly become more potent.