As America deals with an intensifying opioid crisis, both independent and mainstream films have stepped in to raise awareness about the problem, and sometime to propose solutions. While Beautiful Boy gave the Hollywood treatment to the cycle of addiction and relapse, America Adrift instead focuses on a Latinx family in Long Island as they cope with the youngest son’s descent into heroin addiction and crime.
America Adrift tells the story of the Fernandez family, a well-to-do Latinx family living in East Neck, Long Island. Despite a comfortable home life and loving parents, the youngest Fernandez boy, Cameron (Angel Bismarck Curiel), has become a victim of the opioid crisis. First using and then dealing heroin, the young man is a source of constant worry to his mother Cecelia (Lauren Luna Velez), father William (Tony Plana), and elder brothers Sam (Davi Santos) and Alex (Esteban Benito). As the family deals with the endless cycle of Cameron’s addiction and deeper dive into drugs and crime, they come unstuck, unable to help the boy they love and searching for ways to cope with a problem they cannot solve.
America Adrift makes use of some odd cinematic and visual choices, some of which pay off while others fail to. The early part of the film makes use of temporal confusion to emphasize the cyclical nature of addiction, as conversations take place again and again in different spaces and at different times. Each member of the family deals with Cameron’s constant moves in and out of rehab in their own way – the men largely get angry or shut down, as William can’t handle his son’s relapses, while Alex removes himself from the family altogether. Sam is closest with his brother, but even he steps aside to write a book about his brother instead, leaving their mother Cecelia to deal most intimately with Cameron’s problems. Cecelia herself is blind to her son’s abuse of her trust, and there are moments of excellent pathos as she argues with husband and sons that Cameron has changed when it’s quite obvious that he hasn’t.
The problem of the film, however, is in failing to establish anything particularly sympathetic about Cameron other than his opioid addiction. There’s little no treatment of him as a likable kid, or as someone who has fallen into a cycle he can’t escape from. His mother’s willful blindness to his exploitation of her trust would make greater narrative sense if there was something cutting through that – if he had an inherent sweetness or was able to move between his wildness and his attempts, honest or not, to become better. While it’s of course realistic that some people will love and care for family members simply because they’re family members, Cameron’s consistent exploitation of his mother feels neither clearly co-dependent nor manipulative – he’s just not a very nice person.
Some of these issues are down to the script and the directing. America Adrift often feels like a school special intended to showcase the problems of opioid addiction by making everything easy to access—which is a venerable project in itself, but not conducive to a deep exploration of addiction and grief. All of the emotions are on the surface, as characters scream, cry, and threaten each other one minute, then calm down and carry on with dinner the next. There’s a bit of tonal whiplash going on here, through which the film evades digging deeply into its subject matter.
As America Adrift proceeds, it begins to strain credulity, leaving large gaps in time and character development that keep the film from ever digging deep into its subject matter. There’s a lack of establishing shots or location in space and time. The temporal overlaps can be interesting, but after a while they begin to feel like a good idea never quite carried through to its logical conclusion. And there are a lot of good ideas here, and some strong performances, especially from Velez, but none of that can quite keep hold of the film and stop it from, well, drifting away into some unbelievable territory.
Ultimately, this is a film that has its heart in the right place, that wants to discuss the depths of the opioid crisis, particularly focusing on a Latinx family to do it – a nice change from the upper middle-class white people of films like Beautiful Boy. But its superficiality stops it from finding a strong center of pathos, and a final act shift becomes unintentionally comical. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of potential here that the film never manages to exploit.
America Adrift is available to stream on VOD, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.