Emotional depth comes wrapped in bleakness in Better Things, a visually striking and thoughtful feature debut by the British writer-director Duane Hopkins. Just as in his award-winning short films (Fields, Love Me or Leave Me Alone), the former artist and photographer devotes most of his filmmaking energy to unfolding a fragmented narrative through a lucid and almost nightmarish pace, with the aim of creating a film that ‘truly evokes rural England’. However, although Better Things reaches for the sort of complexity demonstrated in the director’s shorts, it doesn’t quite manage to convey the same poignant intensity.
Somewhat prudently, the film has been billed in its journey around the international film festival circuit as a painterly view of rural existence rather than as a drama about substance addiction, yet at its heart lies the shattering impact of a young woman’s death from a heroin overdose. Much of the story follows her boyfriend Rob, a junkie himself, who, like most of his friends, uses drugs to escape the unbearably grim monotony of everyday life while his little brother experiences the equally devastating very few highs and many lows of first love. The multi-layered narrative also encompasses the parallel stories of an elderly couple unable to forgive each other for a stale betrayal, and of a girl named Gail who struggles to overcome her agoraphobia and her addiction to the romance novels that keep her safe from the harsh world outside.
Switching between several plot strands set during the same miserable days and nights in the rural boredom of the Cotswolds, Better Things follows innocuous and utterly repressed characters pushed to extremes of emotional despair, tracing their personal journeys through very little dialogue and a lot of moody posturing. Rob’s existential crisis, for example, is hinted at but never properly explored, which makes his character increasingly irritating, especially as he is – more or less – the leading role in the ensemble. The result is a series of character snapshots enhanced by Hopkins’s ability to capture the essence of unhappiness in this particular setting with impressive exactitude. But the film’s style, located somewhere between a poetically shot documentary and the observational approach of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, isn’t backed up by enough substance. There is a strong suggestion that fertile associations connect scenes together but key details that would help tighten the links and elucidate the mystery at the heart of the film are withheld, preventing the film from ever developing into something more than the sum of its parts.
From an aesthetic point of view, Better Things is intoxicating and haunting in equal measures for the austere, self-enclosed world Hopkins creates with a palette reduced almost to monochrome. There is an aching, yearning quality mixed with pent-up frustration and anger, much of it communicated through an impressive sound design and the world of stillness and near-silence, of forbidding yet alluring landscapes.
Better Things is a problematic film, in its structure and narrative approach, but it carries a great deal of the directorial strength and emphasis of Hopkins’s earlier work, most notably, a devotion to form over narrative. Although the film is flawed and may be too stark to convey Hopkins’s poetic-realist style in a convincing way, it offers a powerful evocation of the desperate, tongue-tied helplessness that sets its various characters in motion, and which, in the film’s riveting moments, echoes uneasily in the mind.