D: Amber Dawn Lee / 85m
Cast: Amber Dawn Lee, Noelle Messier, James Black, Darin Cooper, Jeff Chassler, Ron Allen, Eugenia Care, Leif Gantvoort
You’re an aspiring actress who wants to be known for more than roles as The Hottie in short The Bigfoot Hunters (2013), or as Hippie Barfly in lame horror Butterfly (2010). So what do you do? Simple: start your own production company and put your other talents as a writer and a producer and a director to the fore. Amber Dawn Lee did exactly that in 2010 when she formed Abovo Films. Six years on and we have the first feature made by Lee through her own production company, the abrasive romantic drama, Black Tar Road.
Originally titled A Junkie Love Story before its release, Black Tar Road is a bleak, occasionally disturbing look at love amongst the ruins of two women’s lives as they come together and find a semblance of happiness while nothing around them changes. Heather (Messier) is a hooker who finds her customers at a local truck stop. She’s tall, skinny, and by her own admission, not the prettiest woman to look at. But she has nowhere else to go, and no real ambitions to better herself other than to travel west to Pasadena. But even then she has no idea what she’ll do when she gets there. Charlie (Lee) is a trucker, working off a debt to a criminal gang by transporting illegal items around the American southwest. She’s a drug addict, too, injecting heroin at an often alarming rate but somehow managing to function. Beyond clearing her debt she too has no ambitions or plans; the only difference between her and Heather is that she at least has travelled, even if it is behind the wheel of a truck.
Their relationship begins in an offhand, casual way, in a bar. There’s an attraction on Charlie’s part that happens straight away, but Heather is looking for a friend to help make her life more bearable. She’s not looking for love as she doesn’t think it’s real anymore. Charlie thinks along similar lines, but the ease with which they come together as friends makes it inevitable that they’ll fall in love. As both director and writer, Lee doesn’t shy away from how broken these two women are, nor how much they want to feel normal (whatever that means for them). As their friendship develops and becomes sexual as well as more emotional, Lee’s script allows them a respite from the pain and disappointment of their regular lives. Together, they can block out all the bad stuff and ignore it for a while, but thanks to their own failings and their own individual problems, all that stuff is still going to be there to trip them up.
As Heather and Charlie become closer and more committed to each other, as well as the idea of their being a couple, there’s the likelihood that we’ll get to know more about them. Up til now, Lee has provided very little back story for either character, and while this doesn’t hinder our understanding of the two women, it does create a distance between them and the viewer that restricts the amount of sympathy we feel for them. Heather was popular in high school, and is reminded of this from time to time, but we don’t know the circumstances that have led her into prostitution. Likewise, Charlie’s addiction to heroin is presented as an integral, and important, part of her lifestyle and character. Lee refrains from exploring each character’s unwillingness to change (or at least try to); instead she makes their determination not to change a kind of feminist badge of honour, as both women try to convince each other, and the audience, that this is who they are and they don’t need to be any different.
Lee paints a pretty miserable picture of both women’s lives from the outset, and the first half an hour may test the patience of viewers who don’t like their movies to be quite so grim, but once Heather and Charlie begin their relationship in earnest, then Lee allows the movie to breathe a little. She lets the two women experience joy and hope in equal measure, and changes the parameters by which they relate to the world. Lee shoots several scenes in black and white to highlight the difference that their romance means to them, how simple their lives have become in these moments of intimacy and love. These are affecting moments, driven by the closeness and the bond between Heather and Charlie, and by Lee’s careful, though obvious, signposting of the way in which things might change for the worst.
As the beleaguered women, both Lee and Messier are on fine form. Lee plays Charlie as a more internalised role, a mostly quiet(er) counterpoint to Messier’s garrulous Heather. Charlie’s drug habit leaves her looking haggard and on the verge of death a lot of the time, and Lee isn’t afraid to look suitably ghastly. Heather has a nervous laugh that animates her face in a way that shows off her insecurity around other people; like Lee, Messier isn’t afraid to look worn-down or exhausted. Both actresses express a degree of fearlessness in their roles that adds texture and a coarse vitality to their roles, but they’re equally adept at showing the vulnerability and the tenderness that Heather and Charlie are able to show each other, and no one else.
For all its positive qualities though, Black Tar Road does founder at times, and Lee makes some narrative decisions that don’t make a lot of sense. Charlie does something that should see her pursued by the police, but once it’s done and she’s panicked a bit over it, it’s forgotten and never mentioned again. It’s a very unlikely outcome, and some viewers may well continue watching the movie waiting for this “something” to come back and bite Charlie in the ass. That it doesn’t is unfortunate, and the sequence in which it occurs ends up feeling like an unnecessary addition to Charlie’s storyline. Heather, meanwhile, looks after her grandmother, who is borderline catatonic. This never amounts to anything significant, unless it’s to show that Charlie and Heather aren’t entirely self-centred; if that’s the case, then it’s a very clumsy way of telling viewers something they’ll already have guessed for themselves. There’s also way too many scenes of Charlie shooting up and then waking up – often in the street – some time later; each time, she comes to, she gets up, and carries on as if it’s never happened.
At times unremittingly bleak – Heather contributes a voice over in the opening ten minutes that will have some viewers convinced this is going to be a suicide tale – Black Tar Road uses a framing device to provide a degree of optimism as to the movie’s eventual outcome. But said optimism is ultimately in short supply, and while this is in keeping with the not-so-cautionary tale that Lee is telling, any viewer approaching this movie expecting a happy ending, may be better off looking elsewhere.
Rating: 7/10 – a gritty drama that doesn’t send its main characters on a search for personal redemption – and is all the better for it – Black Tar Road overcomes some narrative fumbles along the way to become a low-key, bittersweet tale of love against the odds; at times earnest and impassioned, and buoyed by two impressive performances from Lee and Messier, the movie may appear too dour for its own good, but it’s a look on the dark sides of hope and personal need that succeeds more often than it fails.