If the opening images of Duane Hopkins’ debut, Better Things, don’t grab you, you might seriously want to consider leaving the theater, because this unremittingly bleak drama isn’t going to become any less of a tough sit with time. Starting out with a striking series of overcast landscape images and close-ups of drugged up young kids, this incessantly dour movie could not by any stretch of the imagination be classified as entertainment. It is so steadfast is it in its refusal to glamorize the depressive lifestyles of its cast that it is reluctant to let the least bit of levity into the frame.
Nonetheless, it is a respectable effort that suggests Hopkins might be a burgeoning talent. Throughout the film, you get a sense that the director is trying out ideas, searching for his voice, and more often or not his experiments work. Some touches here, like an edit that takes place immediately after a light is shut off, casting the audience into darkness, or the framing of a doorjamb’s reflection of a coat rack in a manner that suggests the image of a cross, are subtly striking. Such moments are acceptable as they never overwhelm the film’s miserabilism. The movie might have but one tone, but it remains sustained throughout the entire run time.
In Better Things, Hopkins is trying to approximate the detached perspective of his withdrawn characters, who largely shun interactions with others either due to drug use or mental disorders. More a mood piece than a message movie, the film pulses with portent. Better Things may not be especially insightful, and it may not offer much in the way of hope, but it certainly can’t be accused of betraying itself.