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Love is the Drug (Elliott Lester, 2006)
Love is the Drug, Elliott Lesterís uncommonly assured debut feature, doesnít just shame most other teen dramas; it stands above most recent American independent films of any sort. Mining familiar territory, it traffics in drug use, casual sex, peer pressure, and absentee parents, but manages to distinguish itself, largely through its unshowy directorial confidence and focus on subtle character shadings. Perhaps most surprisingly, despite its seedy subject matter and target audience, the film stands back from making absolute moral judgments about its characters. For an extremely long time, itís difficult to tell what direction the plot will move in, primarily because it isnít reliant upon forcing easy conclusions on the audience.
When that plot does finally kick into gear, Love is the Drug reveals itself to be a study of obsession, in which a promising, but working-class, teenaged student finds himself infatuated with a seemingly untouchable rich girl at his elite private high school. Through the access to medications that his part time job as a pharmacy delivery boy provides, heís able to ingratiate himself with her and her male friends, ultimately setting off a series of tragic events. Again, this is boilerplate stuff, but itís conveyed with such a fine observational ear and such a firm handle on power dynamics that it excels nonetheless. Particularly skillful is the way that Jonah is shown simultaneously to be both an enabler and a drag on the teenís hedonistic desires. He dopes them up as he nags them. He sexually competes with his male peers, even as he stays subservient to them. From an objective standpoint, this group of teens seems to act more like a pack of wild dogs, with the alpha dogís position always in question.
Although itís a cautionary tale about the excessive freedoms given to teens, Love is the Drug only feels like one in retrospect. As it plays out, it sticks too close to the teen cast, and is too skilled in presenting things from their stunted point of view, to feel didactic at all. Its characters are as often shown conspiring as partying, which only draws the viewer in further into the insularity of their world. The actors are clearly a credit to the film. Lizzy Caplan and John Patrick Amedori are superb as the leads. Each crafts a complex, believable character that infuses Love is the Drugís specific, southern Californian setting with the kind of verisimilitude that eludes the vast majority of its genre peers.