''HairKutt" is almost impossible to review conventionally because, face it, how many home-movie exploitation drug interventions are there out there? Sixty grueling minutes in length, Curtis Elliott's film falls between the cracks of public service and reality TV, and it's as fascinating for the problematic conceits behind it as for the harsh anti-drug message on its surface.
The gist of it is this: In February 2002, Elliott and two St. Louis friends ''kidnapped" their childhood pal Bryant ''HairKutt" Johnson and took him to a remote cabin in the Tennessee woods. Johnson was wary but willing, since he saw no other way to kick a 15-year heroin addiction. Elliott turns the camera on himself, Anthony ''Lark" Dorsey, and Maurice ''Reese" Bradley for sit-down interviews after the fact, but the meat of ''HairKutt" -- and it's tough to chew -- is the grainy handheld footage of Johnson undergoing a week of cold turkey.
This may be the best ''scared straight" material a cocky kid will ever see: night-time video of a man tossing in pain, and retching, retching, retching. Johnson begs his friends to take him home and at one point leaves the cabin and wanders down the road, deliriously intending to walk the hundreds of miles back to St. Louis. He's quickly reeled back in, and the vigil continues.
Johnson also complains his stomach is bleeding, a fact his friends discount as raving until they see the first-hand evidence and belatedly take him to the hospital. For all the good intentions, the implicit message of ''HairKutt" is: Kids, don't try this at home, let alone in a shack in the middle of nowhere.
There are other dissonances. Elliott's larger agendas as documentarian and budding social activist -- he maintains an anti-drug website (www.itstoughtogetoffdrugs) and peppers the film with statistics -- compromise his stated purpose in helping a buddy kick the habit. There's a whiff of exploitation to the whole project that gets stronger whenever Johnson looks at the camera with the glazed eyes of a trapped and very ill man. Can you help a friend and use him at the same time? ''HairKutt" raises the question but is too conceptually muddled to answer it.
Take the parts that work, then: the street-level memories of growing up in an urban neighborhood where drugs were literally available on every corner, and the despairing fall-out years later. HairKutt got high the day after he returned to St. Louis. The people who need to see this movie need to see it when they're young.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.