Shooting Heroin takes place in a small town in Pennsylvania, a once close-knit community that is dying a painful death.
As the film opens, we meet several people who have lost loved ones to the Opioid Epidemic. Hazel (Sherilyn Fenn) speaks at a school assembly about how both of her sons overdosed within hours of each other and the only response she gets is a few students snickering at her. Adam (Alan Powell) loses his sister to heroin and has to take her baby into his home. Sitting in a bar, prison guard and local hunter Edward (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) demands to know why the police aren’t doing more to lock up the dealers. The town’s sole lawman, Jerry (Garry Pastore), can only explain that he is only one person and that he can only arrest someone if he has proof that they’re actually dealing drugs. Suspicions and gossip aren’t enough.
After a night of heavy drinking and heavier emotions, Adam comes up with the idea of a voluntary drug taskforce. He recruits Edward and Hazel and, after Jerry reluctantly deputizes them, the three of them set out to battle the drug dealers their own way. (“By any means necessary,” as Edward puts it.) Of course, all three of them have their own thoughts on how to best deal with the issue. Hazel puts up crudely painted but well-intentioned signs, asking teenagers if they truly want to break their mother’s heart. Edward stops every car that’s heading into town and does a search. (Yes, it’s highly unconstitutional.) As for Adam, he wants revenge against the man who he believes was his sister’s dealer. And if that means setting a house on fire and picking up a rifle to go hunting, that’s what Adam’s going to do.
Now, from that plot description, you might think that Shooting Heroin is a run-of-the-mill revenge flick but it’s not. It definitely has its pulpy elements but, for the most part, Shooting Heroin is an intelligently written and well-directed look at how the Opioid Epidemic is ravaging communities across America. The film approaches the subject with the type of empathy that, far too often, is missing from films like this. There are no easy villains, the film tells us, and there are also no perfect heroes. Adam, Edward, and Hazel all have their own approaches, each with their own set of strengths and flaws but the ultimate message of the film is that nothing is going to get better until we stop attacking and demonizing one another. That’s an important message and one that, unfortunately, doesn’t get broadcast as much as it should. Far too often, the war on drugs is a war on those members of the community who are at their most vulnerable.
The film is full of familiar faces, with Sherilyn Fenn giving the strongest and most poignant performance as Hazel. There’s something very touching about the combination of Hazel’s determination to get through to teenagers and her total cluelessness about the best way to actually do so. For all of her grief and anger, Hazel remains innocent enough to believe that telling a drug addict that they’re breaking their mother’s heart is the ultimate solution to the crisis. When she joins the task force, she hands out adrenaline shots so that addicts can be revived. When she confronts of a pharmacy worker who has filled an obviously faked prescription, Hazel speaks with the anger of someone who has seen the damage done to her community. When she’s handed a gun, she says that she’s not going to carry anything that can kill. Hazel, like so many people, is just trying to do her best in a unwinnable situation and it’s sometimes both heartbreaking and inspiring to watch her.
Shooting Heroin brings empathy to its look at the Opioid Epidemic, which is something that has been lacking in far too many other examinations of the what’s currently happening in America. What’s happening in middle America is, for many in the political and media establishment, an inconvenient truth. During the Obama years, the Opioid Epidemic was ignored because acknowledging it would have meant acknowledging the failure of Obama’s economic policies. During the Trump years, the victims of the Opioid Epidemic were dismissed by a media and a political class who insisted on viewing every issue through the prism of red state vs. blue state. One can only guess how these ravaged communities will fare during the Biden years, though there’s little reason to be optimistic that a 78 year-old career politician is going to do anything differently from his predecessors. Shooting Heroin is a film about what’s happening today and it’s a film that will leave you thinking about the future.