Catherine Keener and Charlie Heaton star in an intimate drama that delves into the emotional fallout of addiction.
In No Future, a film as downbeat as its title suggests, an addict’s death sets off a chain of quietly imploding grief and guilt in the two people closest to him. They’re played by Catherine Keener, as the young man’s mother, and Charlie Heaton, as his onetime best friend, with a lived-in, understated intensity. The drama around them too often lands rather neatly on the surface, saying exactly what it means, but through the unpredictability of its two leads, Keener especially, and in the knotty connection between their characters, the movie gets under the skin and goes beyond the bromide-laden playbook.
Though it contains crucial scenes of 12-step meetings, the film doesn’t follow the template for addiction-therapy drama (hit bottom, get help, struggle, backslide, struggle, triumph). For their second feature, after 2015’s The Love Inside, directors Andrew Irvine and Mark Smoot, working from Smoot’s screenplay, are concerned with the emotional fallout of addiction and recovery, the layers of damage not just for addicts but for those around them, and the ways that well-meaning people, caught in the maelstrom, inflict pain.
Cinematographer Jomo Fray’s compositions are studied but never fussy in their eloquence. The movie is often drained of color in ways that accentuate the darkness at its core, and Jon Natchez’s score churns with foreboding from the get-go. As Will, 20-something and in recovery from heroin addiction, Heaton (Stranger Things) has a haunted air, his hopefulness wrought with self-doubt. He knows the next step with his girlfriend, Becca, an even-keeled nursing assistant (Rosa Salazar, breathing life into an underwritten part), is to ask her to move in, but the vulnerability of living with someone frightens him.
That people comment on how together Will looks speaks volumes about how low he’d sunk. The compliments usually have a slight barb to them, the admiration tangled with resentment or jealousy, as in an encounter with an old friend (Austin Amelio).
It’s another, earlier encounter that sets the story’s spiraling events in motion: Chris (Jefferson White, heartbreaking), Will’s former best friend, shows up at his house one night. (In an example of how obvious the writing can be, the two were in a band called No Future.) Not long out of jail, presumably for drugs, he’s tense and clearly in need. To the squirming Will, Chris is a ghost from a past he’s trying to shed and a threat to the sobriety he’s working hard to maintain.
After some unconvincing on-the-button dialogue about “people like us,” the scene finds its heart: “There’s no place in this world for me,” Chris says, his distress scarcely veiled by the bitterness with which he spits out the words. Laying bare his emotional state, those words are also a searing comment on the lifelong stigma of a felony conviction under the American legal system — a fate Will has avoided, even though he was the one who started using first.
His friend’s anguish is more than Will can handle — or more than he wants to handle — and he turns Chris away, only to learn the next day that he died during the night from an overdose. Their meeting becomes Will’s secret and the movie’s ticking time bomb, especially after Chris’ mother, Claire (Keener), reaches out to him for answers. She wants to know if her son died accidentally or on purpose, a question the guilt-wracked Will shoves away.
That time bomb will explode rather predictably, and the plotting can feel less than fluid. But one of the film’s strengths is its refusal to turn Claire, a single mother who has spent years dealing with her son’s addiction, into a selfless hero. That’s she’s bereft is achingly clear in Keener’s remarkable performance, equal parts flinty and tender. But just as evident are her complicated feelings of guilt. These go beyond what Claire claims were years of “enabling” Chris, using the easiest, lingo-wrapped way to describe her role. Nearly every time a character slips into therapy-speak, there’s some dissembling going on.
In her last conversation with her son, before he locks himself in his room to shoot up, she treats him with wariness, checking his eyes for signs of inebriation but not tuning in to his desperate state of mind — at least not until it’s too late, her words of support offered through his locked bedroom door. In a parallel exchange, Will’s unforgiving father (Jackie Earle Haley, making the most of his three key scenes), will greet him with suspicion and demand to see his arms.
How everyone in this passive-aggressive circle of neediness, denial, blame and mistrust carom off one another rings sad and true, and how Claire and Will drift into a sexual relationship is played to harrowing, awkward perfection by Keener and Heaton, by turns guarded and raw.
Most of the events in this smart, sensitive drama unfold at a remove, perhaps a reflection of how worn down and hardened the characters have become, wearied by the messy toll of addiction in their lives. As is so often the case, honesty proves easier with strangers. There are Will’s confessions to his support group and, in the film’s most affecting scene, the breathtaking moment when Claire, in the plant nursery where she works, amid its relative profusion of color, confronts a couple of young women because she suspects they’re talking about her and her son. The armor comes off, the skin peeled back without ceremony, leaving all three women, and the audience, shaken to the core.