It all starts with a black frame and a soothing voice. It is soft and relaxing, yet there is darkness in the words – and soon we realise that it belongs to a grown man, trying to take advantage of a teenage girl. This time however she manages, with a little help from her friends, to take advantage of his weaknesses – but we know that even if they win the occasional battle this is a war they’ll never win.
That man won’t reappear – but we’ll follow the two girls to the very end. They are Stella and Magnea, and in fact Magnea is following Stella, who is older and taller and more confident. She’s the femme fatale of the story, the probable reason Magnea got dragged into this world.
The world of the film Let Me Fall, the world of drugs – as well as the occasional dirty old man, who are like parasites on this world, buying their misery so they can afford to buy another kind of misery. Oh, and did I mention the misery? There is certainly a lot of it here.
Stella and Magnea then grow up – and the film constantly moved between time periods, thereby mirroring the end with the beginning, the cause and the effect. Yet there’s a certain kind of role reversal in adulthood. Stella, that child of the dark, has seen the light and now helps others who are suffering – but now Magnea is the little devil that constantly reminds her of the past. By now Magnea is a shell of a person, perhaps a little exaggerated, but the guilt about leaving her behind in the netherworld she originally dragged her into constantly gnaws at Stella and makes her entire middle-class existence empty.
And even if Magnea is the real lead, the character of Stella remains more interesting – or rather, the older version. Her misfortune is her self-confidence, she was the cool chick everybody either longed for or wanted to be like in High School. Now she can see how she misused that power, both towards her friends and herself, not really being as untouchable as she felt.
A lot of things are very well done here. The religious aspect of the rehab treatments are criticized, we see how this “Jesus bullshit” doesn’t sit too well into rebellious teens and it even helps push them back on the street. The four leading actresses, playing the two girls at different ages, all turn in great performances and there is a lot of bravery in the filmmaking itself, like where the opening scene closes with an unexpected silence and then title on a black screen: Let Me Fall. But fall where?
The film itself fails with the script. Not because of the occasional weakness in its structure, but rather because the script is not quite as courageous as the film making itself. And that’s where we come to the parents.
Magnea’s parents are divorced – but that doesn’t feel like too much of a problem, she’s now just a part of two happy families rather than one. The two foster parents soon disappear from the film though and the parents take centre stage. Those are not your typical junkie parents. Sure, the father has some past with substances, but that’s not really an important part of the story. But these are sweet and kind parents, trying to be understanding, contrary two the dictators and violent bullies of the drugsploitation films of yore.
Yet their kindness turns out to be their weakness, they hardly ever dare to show discipline or roughness towards their children, no matter what sort of mistakes they made. They never dare to be disciplinarians. “Then she’ll just grow further away from us,” the father says and you get the feeling that was perhaps what pushed him into his substance abuse back in the day, that his parents were the disciplinarians of years gone by. This is really a manifestation of Ethan Hawke’s monologue about parents in Before Sunrise, about everybody’s parents fucking them, either with two much love or too little love, with overprotecting them or not protecting them enough. The parents persist in not using the methods that failed themselves, yet are doomed to make the same mistakes in the end, stuck in their own helplessness.
This is an interesting dilemma and uncomfortable, particularly for those of us who’ve studied any pedagogy. Could it be the old methods work better – is the friendly approach just as dangerous as the tough approach? That’s an interesting question worth further study – and was actually perhaps the main topic, from the other angle, in Whiplash.
Yet the film’s biggest problem is that it’s in a certain sense the parents’ story, even if they are supporting characters. Not literally, of course, but this is the message film they would have wanted to see, even the story they might eventually tell Magnea’s younger siblings.
We never really understand why Magnea and Stella bother with chasing those drugs. We see brief scenes, often just a few seconds, where we see the high, like when Magnea smiles the broadest smile ever after trying a new drug. There’s plenty of partying scenes, but the film always shows them from the outside. You probably know the stories of people who have given up either the drugs or the booze, where they describe walking into a bar and finding nothing but boredom. Which is perhaps because you’re not in the party anymore, you’re just watching it. We never really get high with them, we never get to see the kick they get out of this. We just see them getting more miserable and we never really get to enter their head.
Therefore, we only get half the story – if that, because if we don’t understand the first part we’re not really likely to understand the second. By showing us this world as nothing but misery something is simply lacking. The girls themselves don’t really have any personality apart from the addiction, as hard as the actresses try to give them some personality.
So the film never punches you in the gut like it should, because this misery never surprises. Magnea’s dad claims at one point that she can be anything she wants to be – and we all know he’s wrong. Not because the addiction has devoured her whole – at that point she probably still had a chance, but because despite being a good student she lacks the personality and any discernible interests to become something, there’s no drive to go further. We never see any possibilities for her apart from the unavoidable shell of a human being she’ll be as her adult self.
You might simply sum the movie up with the words it lack a bit of Trainspotting. Now, those two films could legibly be accused of glorifying drug use, despite the occasional downer, yet you always forget them because of how funny, fearless and brilliant social critiques they happened to be. But you certainly need some downer-movies to counter that, but they are actually harder to make – because to work properly they need more variety in their emotional palette. A little fuck-you monologue before everything becomes irredeemably fucked up, not just unintelligible teenagers who seem just like foolish kids to the adult audience.
Text: Ásgeir H Ingólfsson