Growing up in Kensington, I saw firsthand how much Heroin can destroy people, both directly and indirectly. It’s taken its toll not only on the lives of the addicts but their friends, their families, and in some cases, even their communities. This seemed to be the main idea of the local independent film Heroin, however better editing would have helped convey this a little more clearly. The flow of the movie was about as smooth as chunky peanut butter, but while it might not have a pleasant consistency, you can still tell it has flavor.
To be honest, I went in expecting something that looked like Cash Money Millionaires’ Baller Blockin’ or Master P’s I’m Bout It. I came out very pleasantly surprised that this, at least in my opinion, was definitely a step above that. While those productions had wealthy and well known rap artists funding what seemed to play out like 90 minute videos meant to support their latest single, they lacked any real heart or soul and came across as deep and as plastic as the so called artists behind them. It didn’t come across like there was some secret passion for movie making behind those films and that is where Heroin rises above. Clearly a labor of love, Heroin has the soul those bombs from the 90’s were missing in its story elements, and even when poorly edited, had realism to them. Not once did it feel like a rap song brought to life glorifying what Hollywood sees as inner city culture. Rather, it had the grittiness of real life in the streets of Philadelphia.
In general, the movie is pretty well paced. It drags at times due to dialogue heavy scenes that just needed some help in the editing department to make them pop. I am a huge fan of Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, so I am definitely not afraid of a movie drenched in dialogue as long as it serves some greater purpose. Often times, conversations between characters meant to set up an upcoming scene would drag on, as if you casually overheard a group of friends discussing “what time and where a party is and what are you going to wear” type conversations that did more to slow the movie down than to develop a specific character. The film runs into this problem again with its use of montages. While usually meant to convey a lot of plot in a short series of brief, nonverbal yet poignant moments, the montages in Heroin also slowed things down a bit and would’ve better served the film with a faster paced instrumental and a few bits left on the cutting room floor.
While there may have been some scenes that slowed the pace down a bit, for the most part, the music helps not only keep the movie moving but it is part of what gives the movie its soul. Using original music from local up and coming artists like Niche Vega and Vinnie, gave the movie just the right amount of Philly flavor to make it feel more credible and real and much less like a mainstream mess. Local producers, La Mar Rayfield and Lamar Alexander, along with plenty of help from June Bervine, did a great job on sound, selecting great music and helping to set the tone. My only complaints being the pacing of the montages, as I mentioned before, and a few spots where the everyday, city background noise was a little too level with the dialogue, however, to say that ruined the movie would be inaccurate and just nitpicking clearly talented people on their first venture into the film business.
While the production was surprisingly clean for a local, independent movie, the acting is what you would expect from this type of flick, extras who sound like they are reading, supporting actors who outshine the stars, and stars that are hit or miss at times. The main character Howie, played by Rodd Deon falls under the hit or miss character. While he can definitely portray that unique Philly attitude you find in a guy of his stocky stature, he lacks the desperation of a true heroin addict. That type of desperation is so palpable in some areas of the City of Brotherly Love, that you can almost smell it. However, I didn’t really buy him as a long time dope fiend who finds himself in deep with a well-known and dangerous drug dealer, Jerome. Played by Eddie Frank, Jerome definitely had a presence that let you know he was a force. Combined with his size and his ability to convey power through his screen presence alone, Frank stood out in Heroin and aside from the drug itself, gave you the perfect villain to root against through the movie.
That brings us to Wanda, Howie’s daughter in the movie played by new to the scene actress, Keniesha Robinson. While Frank provides a bad guy you hate to love, she gives you the Philly version of the girl next door that you wind up loving to hate. Partially due to how her character is written and partially due to the eternal “I’m disgusted by everything” type face she is often making, Wanda just does not become a character we care about. She comes across as judgmental and a bit stuck up, mainly due to the look on her face in most scenes. This is a character who is supposed to be the person doing well with her life, full of potential growing up, a good looking boyfriend who may or not have done her dirty, a decent job, and a love for her father that leads her to make questionable choices in order to help him with his debt to Jerome. Her ill-fated efforts to pay a $10,000 debt with extra shifts at her job and borrowed money from friends are laughable at best and lend no help in trying to understand how, when faced with the prospect of having to sell her body, she needs only step away from the car for a moment to shed an overdramatic fake tear, before returning with a resounding, not reluctant, “ok, I’ll do it.” When she is eventually taken to her first customer and referred to as the N word in front of her new found pimp, Jerome, you literally do not even feel bad for her even when her first john is forcing himself on her sans condom. It’s made worse later in the movie when she has avoided her man because of the aforementioned questionable infidelity, only to turn around and take him back with open arms and legs with no real reason as to why. You’ve been standoffish to him for the whole movie because you thought he cheated but now that you’ve been pimped out, I guess you can’t be mad anymore, right?
The audience are not the only people annoyed by her newfound forgiveness. Throughout the movie she has shot down the advances of the character that literally steals the whole movie, Leonard. Portrayed by newcomer and Philadelphia native Chavez LaGare. Leonard is set up to be that annoying guy at the papi store that’s constantly hitting on every female that walks in, especially the love of his life, Wanda. Providing the other stand out performance next to Jerome’s, LaGare plays Leonard as the annoying boy next door whose creeper level rises as the movie goes along. In fact, he comes across as such a creepy stalker type, to the point where in his room is an actual picture shrine to Wanda, where her photo provides not only spank material but acts as his poor substitute for the real thing, gazing at her picture, professing his love and showering her with kisses. Ewww, right? But Wanda comes across so awful at times that you actually kind of like him. Despite being so good at being the annoying pervert with an air of danger bubbling beneath the surface, he eventually steps in to try and help Wanda, hoping to be her hero and win her heart. But when he can’t come up with the funds she needs and resorts to drastic measures, the newfound news of her freedom from Jerome backfires on Leonard and sends her back in to the arms of her man. It’s at this point, that LaGare begins to steal the movie and lead the plot a little astray from the message of the dangers of the white dragon known as heroin.
Remembering that this is a local, independent movie allows you to be a little more forgiving of what would be considered rookie mistakes. Slow moving montages, editing issues, and a few flat performances aside, the movie was still entertaining. There was no big Hollywood or rap artist money going into this movie, this was clearly a passion project for writer and director Rico Salaam. With that in mind, it was definitely a good flick and a respectable first undertaking. While the character of Leonard steals the show and transitions the movie a bit from gritty, street drama, to stalker-esque, thriller film, the movie itself is full of talented people that clearly hold a lot of potential in the film industry. They treated the subject matter seriously and in a way that definitely spoke to its native Philadelphian audience. I believe with a little bit of polishing, Salam is absolutely capable of delivering an intriguing story with a unique perspective. While we might not see Heroin floating around the festival circuit anytime soon, we definitely have not seen the last of Salam, and with any luck at all, we have not seen the last of the show stealing, surprise stand out character, Leonard.
Don’t believe me? Go check it out for yourself. Rico Salam’s writing and directorial debut is available to rent from www.herointhefilm.com