Toronto International Film Festival, September 2008
This daring first feature, deeply inflected by the United Kingdom's visual arts scene, takes well-worn themes of alienation, youth addiction and emotional isolation and remakes them as minimalist, overlapping tableaux. Every segment has the integrity of a painting or short installation, and each scene exudes a certain completeness, boasting an emotional intensity and precise design all its own. Hopkins is a talented photographer, and his highly acclaimed short films anticipate his – and cinematographer Lol Crawley's – aesthetic choices in Better Things.
Much of the story follows Rob, a teenager whose girlfriend overdoses on heroin. As his brother and other friends sink into opiate lethargy, Rob considers options for escape. At the same time, a young woman named Gail tries to overcome agoraphobia and an addiction to romance novels. And the Gladwins, an elderly couple, come to terms with betrayals that occurred earlier in their relationship. Although situated near one another, the characters barely overlap, their stories connected more through metaphor than interaction.
Because the film's plotlines are familiar, Hopkins has enormous freedom to explore oblique narrative strategies. The story moves forward by a whisper, a gesture or unexpected events, such as a relative's arrival. Better Things is packed with characters, and shifts among their personal journeys to create fertile associations and connections.
The characters' dalliances with drugs are rarely for pleasure, but rather to dispel the unpleasant sensation of waiting for something to happen. The interspersing of an elderly couple's story into the mix reveals how the decisions of youth play out in unexpected ways later in life. This approach adds layers of meaning to the film and provides a bitterly ironic reading of its title.
Hopkins grew up in rural England, and one senses his familiarity with the land's beauty, hardships and culture. He devotes most of his filmmaking energy to capturing the atmosphere and particular face of the film's Cotswolds locations. The colours he evokes are breathtaking: misty greens and reflected greys cast an eerie sense of claustrophobia over an otherwise gorgeous landscape in this patient, observant film.
BFI London Film Festival, October 2008
Building on a clutch of award-winning shorts (Field, Love Me Or Leave Me Alone), writer-director Duane Hopkins sets his debut feature in the English Cotswolds, but a world away from much that’s green and pleasant. Here it is not just the location that is isolated, but the individuals within it too. Hopkins and cinematographer Lol Crawley bring a poetic realism to their study of people at the fringes of adulthood: youngsters trying to manage the vicissitudes of love whilst filling their days with cheap drugs to combat their boredom and solitude; elderly folk facing the bafflement and adriftness brought by old age. Loneliness is their shared experience, and their struggles to find connection and meaning a common purpose. With singular vision, Hopkins is unflinching in building a mood of desolation, but this is no one-dimensional exercise in cinematic miserabilism. There is beauty in its restraint, and an agonising empathy and sense of involvement to be found in feelings laid so bare: love brings hurt and confusion, but also offers hope. Utterly believable and directed with graceful assurance, Better Things is auteur filmmaking at its best.