One of the many films slated for this year’s cancelled SXSW Film Festival (although the film had its official premiere at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival) was writer/director Joey Klein’s second feature Castle in the Ground, the follow-up to his moving love story The Other Half. Taking a darker, more desperate turn this time around, actor-turned-filmmaker Klien brings us a character study of 18-year-old Henry (Alex Wolff, Hereditary), whose loving mother (Neve Campbell) is in the final days of a painful bout with cancer. Their quiet existence is disrupted slightly by a rather loud series of events in the apartment across the hall belonging to Ana (Imogen Poots), a troubled young women with her own struggles.
Peeking through his peep hole at a series of people going into her apartment one night (including one in a mask), Henry never finds out exactly what’s going on since he’s too wrapped up in helping his mother. He methodically crushes up her pain pills, puts them into her food, and resists her pleas for more of the meds. The film is set in 2012 to make it crystal clear that this story takes place in that moment in time when OxyContin was about to be taken off the market by its manufacturer, leading to a flood of fake Oxy onto the black market and the beginning of the nation’s spiraling opioid epidemic. But Castle in the Ground is no message film, instead opting to dive deep into the psyches of its two lead characters to expose how Oxy destroyed lives long before it was made largely unavailable.
Henry’s pain is more relatable. His mother passes away, and he seeks some relief from it in her many prescriptions. But before that, he meets Ana at the pharmacy as she attempts to refill the methadone that’s helping her get off heroin. She’s proud of her success in “the program,” even though she still needs the occasional bump to stabilize herself before moving forward to a few more days clean. Her pretzel logic about all aspects of her life results in a high-wire performance from Poots that instantly makes you realize two things: if you give Ana anything, she’ll ask for more; and there is no way that Henry will be able to resist falling into the web of her life. Although she seems like a well-meaning person, Ana is manufactured from trouble, and it all stems from her need to score drugs.
At various points, men like low-level dealer Polo Boy (Keir Gilchrist) and fellow junkie Jimmy (Tom Cullen, who also appeared in The Other Half) drift in and out of Ana’s sphere while she juggles any number of phones calls attempting to get her life together. It’s difficult to tell most of the time whether these phone conversations have life-or-death stakes or if everything in her life is just so heightened that it seems that way. At a certain point, Wolff’s portrayal of Henry becomes that of hapless observer and Ana’s sometimes protector, but even he gets lost in her spiraling life to the point where he simply wants out. But by then it’s too late.
Castle in the Ground is an exhausting, believable tale of lives in decline, and there may simply come a point where you decide you don’t want to spend more time with these perpetual losers, even if you end up feeling for their plight. This is not an easy film to endure at times, but as a raw acting exercise, Poots and Wolff are so good, it might be easiest to lose yourself in their performances and ignore the misery that surrounds them.
The film is available digitally on most streaming platforms and On Demand.