Hannah Mosqueda, Andrew Yackel and Justin Pietropaolo in Gutterbug (Photo: DeadAir Films)
★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Andrew Gibson
STARS Andrew Yackel, Hannah Mosqueda
Homelessness. Drug abuse. Mental health. Suicidal tendencies. Family dysfunction. Combining all these elements into one movie sounds as if it would make for one hell of a documentary, albeit an unavoidably depressing one. Here’s Gutterbug to give it a shot, and it succeeds admirably. Only the film isn’t a documentary; instead, it’s a fictional piece that takes a raw and unflinching look at all manner of societal ills.
Gutterbug tells the story of Stephen “Bug” Bugsby (Andrew Yackel), whose poor choice of friends as an 18-year-old student (to say nothing of his own inner demons) led to a violent confrontation with his frustrated father (Paul Kandarian) and a decision to leave home for good. The film is set on the days surrounding his 21st birthday, as he’s spent the past three years living on the mean Boston streets. Without access to the medications that used to calm him, Bug has had a particularly rough time of it. He begs anyone in eyesight for loose change, he eats food out of garbage cans, and he buys illicit drugs whenever he can afford them. His best friend is the excitable Slim (Justin Pietropaolo), hardly the poster child for acceptable behavior. Bug frequently contemplates suicide, only to place a brake on such thoughts once he meets and falls for a fellow gutter punk named Jenny (Hannah Mosqueda). Meanwhile, his mom (Mary Hronicek) hasn’t given up hope that her baby boy might return home one day.
I’ll say this for Gutterbug: It’s one of the most polished low-budget indie films I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to believe this marks the feature debut of writer-director-producer-editor Andrew Gibson, who previously served as a location scout on movies as excellent as American Hustle and as excremental as Grown Ups 2. There are none of the awkward performances, lurching transitions or ungainly dead spaces that generally mar productions whose entire budgets wouldn’t even cover the catering on the typical Roland Emmerich epic. It’s quite the opposite, as the film is elevated by fluid filmmaking and solid performances. In the central role of Bug, Yackel is particularly a revelation. His is a superb turn that deserves to serve as a launching point for a rich career.
It’s just a shame the movie makes some concessions toward the expected Hollywood tropes during the final stretch. Chief among them is one of those massive coincidences (this one involving a car crash and hospital beds) that usually only pop up when scripters have little imagination (clearly not the case with Gibson and co-writer Chris Tobin). People like the volatile Slim of course exist in real life, but the way he suddenly explodes from a ratty goofball into a full-blown psycho feels just a little too convenient from a narrative standpoint. And while the ending, with its tying up of various story strands, is doubtless the one audiences crave, it’s not necessarily the one the film justifies or even needs.
Still, Gutterbug does enough right that it’s hard to dwell too much on its deficiencies. A scene in which the victim of an overdose is discovered by Bug and friends is presented in a startlingly matter-of-fact manner, not dissimilar to a moment in 1996’s druggie classic Trainspotting. Jenny’s sensitive but opportunistic treatment of a slow-witted store clerk (Billy Jenkins) rings true, as does Bug’s inclination to rant whenever strangers don’t treat him the way he would like to be treated. It’s the cumulative power of moments such as these that ultimately allow Gutterbug to get under the skin.
(Gutterbug is now available on Amazon Prime, Fandango Now, Vudu, and other streaming services.)