Since debuting at the CineVegas Film Festival in 2005, "Self-Medicated" has collected top prizes at competitive showings from Memphis to Rome. It reportedly scored the most awards (39) of any independent film in 2006, so it has more than earned its current theatrical release. But the bar set by all those accolades might not have done this spunky little audience-charmer any real favors.
Loosely spun from the real-life bio of first-time writer, director, and star Monty Lapica, "Self-Medicated" is the kind of super-earnest emotional effort that tends to pull high marks when filmmaking expectations are low. The blond and handsomely chiseled Lapica is a commanding presence on-screen - even if he's not one of those underdeveloped 24-year-olds who can convincingly play 17 - and his story of grief and self-loathing hits home no matter how many clichés it incorporates.
The filmmaker's big-screen alter ego is Andrew, a brilliant young man who is already in the midst of self-destructing when we catch up with him and his friends as they drive along the Las Vegas Strip, stoned and shooting at pedestrians with a paintball gun. Andrew's larger-than-life father has recently died, leaving the teen adrift and very tightly wound, with only his prescription-drug-addicted mother (Diane Venora) to look to as a role model.
When Andrew goes down one too many wrong side streets, his overwhelmed surviving parent has him committed to the kind of rehab facility that comes to your house to get you in the middle of the night. What follows is the kind of intense psychological drama movies love, with repressed baddies overseeing the wards and patients blurting out their tragic pasts in group therapy session after group therapy session.
Lapica plays at satirizing the stereotypes, but his weak shots are almost as forced and obvious as the conventions they mock. Plus, not to make light of anyone's private hell but . . . it's hard to label this journey "harrowing" when the clinic's primary form of torture is essay writing.
Still, Lapica's debut impresses with its strong, clear voice and desire to tell a very personal story not just of substance abuse but of that abuse's painful root cause. It isn't a broad and gritty drug tale like "Requiem for a Dream," but it doesn't seem designed to be, either. "Self-Medicated" is basically an underage soap opera with a conscience and better-than-average style, the latter thanks in part to Denis Maloney's moody cinematography and Anthony Marinelli's sullen background music.
It's worth noting that the movie's spiritual underpinnings are sometimes fairly subtle and other times veer into "Touched by an Angel" territory. The third act is downright Bible-thumping. But even atheists stand to be moved by the sincerity of it, particularly for a film with so many curse words.