'Back Fork': Film Review

Stewart excels in this low-key, affecting drama.

Josh Stewart plays a West Virginia man who becomes addicted to opiates in this indie drama that he also wrote and directed.

A visceral authenticity permeates Josh Stewart's sophomore feature, set in the Appalachian environs from which he hails. Dealing with the unfortunately ever-timely issue of opiate addiction, Back Fork is a subtle yet piercing depiction of the manner in which even the most responsible, well-meaning person can fall into a physical and emotional abyss. While the film doesn't break any new ground either in terms of substance or style, it packs a quiet punch.

Stewart, who wrote and directed, also plays the central role of Waylon, a blue-collar worker still reeling from the death of his young daughter. His marriage seems to be hanging by a thread, with his wife Nida (A.J. Cook) barely able to function and usually not bothering to get fully dressed. The couple's grief is vividly illustrated in one of the film's most powerful, yet subtle scenes, when Nida collapses in tears upon receiving a school notice about their daughter that's been mistakenly sent. Waylon then delivers a bitter dressing-down to the low-level administrator responsible.

Waylon also suffers from the back pain that's an inevitable result of his physical labors. Visiting his elderly parents, he accepts his father's offer of one his legally prescribed pills without giving it much thought. The instant relief he feels inevitably leads him to take more and more pills. After failing a drug test at work, he schemes how to fool it the next time via such methods as drinking gallons of tea. When his wife finally tells him she wants a divorce, it sets off a downward spiral that leads him into full-blown addiction and even more harmful drugs.

His sister Rayleen (Agnes Bruckner) tries to help Waylon. But she's in even worse shape than he is, having already been suffering from addiction for a long time. To score drugs, she's even forced to provide sexual favors to her abusive drug supplier (Wade Williams).  

Back Fork occasionally lapses into melodrama with that subplot, and the overemphatic, bombastic music score doesn't help. The film is most impressive when treating its explosive subject matter in low-key, fatalistic fashion. The writer-director's understated lead performance is its biggest strength. A hard-working supporting player with dozens of films to his credit as well as recurring roles on such television series as Criminal Minds, The Punisher and Shooter, Stewart delivers a strong portrayal of a decent man, struggling with inner demons, that is all the more affecting for its restraint.

Bruckner and Cook are equally strong as the women in Waylon's life who are faring little better than he is, and veteran character actor David Selby (Dark Shadows, Falcon Crest) makes a vivid impression as Waylon's haunted-looking, emotionally repressed father who becomes the unwitting agent of his son's destruction.

The film benefits greatly from its West Virginia locations that lend the proceedings an undeniable realism and strong sense of place. The only shame is that this region of the country, so infrequently the setting for feature films, is being given a cinematic spotlight for such tragic reasons.

Production Companies: Allegheny Image Factory, Back Fork Productions
Distributor: Uncork'd Entertainment
Cast: Josh Stewart, A.J. Cook, Agnes Bruckner, Wade Williams, Dorothy Lyman, David Selby, Ronnie Gene Blevins
Director-screenwriter: Josh Stewart
Producers: Josh Stewart, Jeffrey Tinnell, Robert Tinnell
Director of photography: Ellie Anne Fenton
Production designer: Jason Baker

Costume designer: B.J. Rogers
Editor: Yaniv Dabach

98 minutes