Andrew (Monty Lapica) is in trouble. He first appears on screen riding around in a car with his buddies, raising hell on the streets of Vegas. The cameras are careening, the cuts chaotic, and the kids flush-faced with a sudden sense of power, as if they are, in fact, in control of the moment. The thrill is soon gone, of course, as sirens fill the air and cops pull them over. Cut to the next scene, as Drew’s mom Louise (Diane Venora) is awakened by a phone call—it’s the middle of the night and her night table is littered with pill bottles. More fatigued than alarmed, she sighs: “I know how to get there.”
This hackneyed start for Self-Medicated sets up what’s to come. Cast as a standard-issue Exasperated Mom, Louise’s solution to her high school senior son’s bad behavior suggests her sense of desperation, but it’s also all about her failure, in particular, her apparent inability to research a crucial life decision. She calls in a team of hijackers from a teens-gone-bad-detox facility out in the Utah desert, whimpering in the corner as they haul dear Drew from his bed at five in the morning. “Mom! Mom!” he screams out, “Help!” And when she doesn’t, he comes up with the next cliché on the list: “You bitch! I hate you!”
Much has been made of the movie’s basis in filmmaker and star Lapica’s own experiences (and even granting that unoriginal events do occur in life). But its presentation of that emotional reality is glaringly trite, from the “self-medicating” montages to the canted angles indicating upset and disorientation. It’s true as other reviewers have pointed out, that the supposedly adolescent patients at Brightway look at least five to 10 years out of high school, and that the dialogue and delivery are frequently stiff. But such budget-related distractions aren’t nearly so annoying as the film’s assumption, hit again and again, that the young man’s difficulties are righteous, owing to his pain over a dead father and a pill-popping mom, as well as the fact that he’s smarter than anyone else in sight. “That cynical little brat,” declares the shrink who’s just tested him, “has the highest IQ of any patient we’ve ever had.”
The wonder of Drew is thus announced to everyone, the exaggerated looks on their faces indicating the levels of threat they feel. Sensitive Counselor Keith (Greg Germann) does his best to “reach out” to his patient, insisting he sees through the cool pose and inviting him to trust in a system that you and Drew both know is flawed. While Keith notes that Drew is a master manipulator of the poor souls who are never as smart as he is, the film is less masterful in its efforts to manage your emotions. To underline that Drew is “troubled,” as opposed to “bad,” and so deserving of your sympathy, he appears several times (alone) near or actually tearful.
More often, Drew is set against deserving opponents, especially the designated Bully, a supervisor named Dan (Michael Bowen). In front of an audience looking for a champion—a group session populated by types, including the Sexually Abused Girl, the Sheepish Roommate, the Addled Addict—Drew acts out so obviously that Dan just looks incompetent when he falls for it. Given the depth of the ignorance around him, Drew’s obnoxiously calculated anger and frustration look justified.
All this deck-stacking in favor of Drew works against the film, however. By never questioning his own certainty that he’s right and everyone else is wrong, Self-Medicated reduces complex, real-enough dilemmas to narrative banalities. Even his bad behavior looks commendable compared to Dan’s power-tripping pronouncements or Louise’s poor decision-making. This even though Drew does hurt his one true-blue supporter, Nicole (Kristina Anapau), the Sweet Girl he’s known for years but never had the nerve to consider a girlfriend. It’s never quite clear why Nicole goes along with Drew’s displays of verbal condescension and stunty drunk driving, but eventually even she points out that his self-destructive urges are dangerous.
Still, she’s a girl, and Drew’s mad at his mom, which means he’s incapable of hearing her. He needs a dad, a serious one, to make him pay attention. Thank goodness that Drew embarks on one more drunk driving adventure, in order that he might meet his salvation. It’s not enough that Gabe (William Stanford Davis) is a Bible-quoting homeless man. He’s also the film’s most egregious type, a Magical Negro appearing as if from nowhere just when desperate Drew most needs him. “Why does everything have to be so unfair?” the not-quite-a-boy wonders as they drink beer and look at the stars. “Your daddy was always real proud of you,” offers Gabe, “He’s watching down over you right now.” Ouch.
If the movie meant to undermine its claim to “authenticity” (that claim, again, based in the maker’s experiences), it could not have done it more abruptly or more definitively. Gabe does offer something like a refreshing shift in tone, serene and earnest, following all the inept or malicious adults Drew encounters. Even Drew recognizes Gabe’s singularity. But Self-Medicated never recovers from it.