"Better Things": Beyond Redemption in Rural England? By Elin Larsson
by Elin Larsson
Inevitability is the word that lingers after watching Duane Hopkins’ multi-narrative tale of love and addiction in rural England, Better Things by Duane Hopkins. The film clearly stood out from the rest of the line-up at the 19th edition of the Stockholm International Film Festival, with its poetic imagery, penetrating sound editing and, not least, its thematic narrative.
The story is set in the Cotswolds, an area rich in history and contemplative landscapes, in the heart of England. Amidst gentle hills, stretched-out plains and immense trees, the film takes off in the head of Gail, a young girl suffering from agoraphobia, longing for some kind of release while trying to come to terms with a life in isolation. Seeking solace in literature, Gail learns that “real life is difficult, at best” and that falling in love won’t solve anything. The young girl watches the romantic landscapes outside her window, and her isolation becomes even more obvious and present.
An inevitable longing for release and redemption, but of a different kind, also marks the lives of every other character in Better Things. Heroin addict Rob has recently lost his girlfriend Tess to an overdose, and is devastated by guilt. His efforts to get clean seem futile and his existence becomes more and more a race towards the final state of freedom: death. Rachel, another young girl, is head over heels in love with Larry, but has left him because of his temper and aggressiveness. He cannot bear to see her live a life without him, and keeps on harassing her although what he truly longs for, is finding a way to become her lover again. Another young couple tries to find a way to be together while being apart; the girl has left town in order to get free from drugs while her boyfriend is still using them. Coming back to visit him, she falls back into old habits.
Parallel to the youngsters’ drowsy fight against boredom and meaningless raison d’être in this gloomy reality, the film also follows a couple of elderly characters, among them Gail’s grandmother, who returns home after spending years in a home for the elderly. Another old man moves back to his wife and tries to meet her as she struggles to reach out for him, but something gone wrong in the past separates them.
Better Things has no driven narrative and will not work for the viewer who refuses to embrace that fact. Theme rules over story, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t well supported connections between all of the characters throughout the film. Constant is the transcendent state of longing; longing for love, for release, for solace — in whatever form that may take. All the characters know that something is missing in their lives, and seem destined to fail to find their way back to whatever that missing part is. However, this is not a film without hope, contradictory as this statement may seem. Love, finally, isn’t a solution, but it offers a glimmer of light; crosses over strange and seemingly insurmountable barriers.
In every way, this film is a work of an auteur with a voice and a vision of its own. Images are beautifully and carefully composed, and could have become unbearably romanticizing had they not been in almost constant conflict with the stark bleakness of the realism of the narrative. Amateur actors bring nothing but themselves to their parts, but this also sticks with the fundamental idea of the film as a tale of state-of-being rather than a story with distinct dramaturgy. The sound editing is clever and works perfectly for the form, as does the subtle soundtrack.
All in all, Duane Hopkins’ film is a demanding, challenging piece of work, certainly not for everybody. But stick with it until the end, and you’ll be greatly rewarded – and, perhaps, released in your own way.