Alcohol at Wit’s End

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Geoff Gray-Lee
WCEE.net/Abject Street Media
Street Media
33 minutes. DVD $149.95.

The scene opens in a police station as a teenage prisoner responds to his father’s grilling: “I only had three beers! It was an accident!” Switching back in time to a street in a California Bay Area city, the same boy, Oliver, assures his elderly boss that he can handle Ed’s shop as Ed’s daughter Mazie and her little girl, Joy, pick Ed up for a weekend away.

Serious about school and his job, Oliver makes just a quick stop at his friends’ wine-country keg party that night. When his girlfriend Lola goes off with another guy, Oliver drives home upset and fighting sleep. Dazzled by bright headlights behind him, he crashes into an oncoming car. Viewers have been witnessing Oliver’s inevitable progression toward that moment.

After Oliver is arrested, the bad news keeps getting worse. A little girl in the car that Oliver hit is dead, and a woman is in critical condition. Soon Oliver learns that the victims are Joy and Mazie. His lawyer explains the hopelessness of Oliver’s automobile homicide case: Oliver was an intoxicated minor with a blood alcohol level of .08, he was driving the vehicle, he was negligent crossing the center line, and someone was killed. He has no chance of avoiding a long jail sentence and a heavy fine.

Out on bail awaiting his court hearing, Oliver continues to insist, “There was nothing I could do. There was nothing anyone would have been able to do.” But his parents are glum and silent. His friends avoid him. Although Lola apologizes for her behavior that night and shows sympathy, she will only be with him “in spirit” in court.

When Oliver faces a long walk up the courthouse steps, a bereaved Ed is waiting for him with sobering words – the first message that reaches this promising young man who has lost control of his car and his life.

Writer-producer-director Geoff Gray-Lee transforms the workmanlike youth character-education film genre with a polished production that feels like network television. Well-cast actors playing credible multicultural characters deliver colorful dialogue. Ruben Oriol-Rivera as Oliver is particularly compelling, as he reacts to his dire situation through expressive eyes and silences. Artful film techniques enhance moods and themes: Scenes switch from color to black-and-white to foreshadow tragedy; a moody still of the full moon follows the blinding car crash; Oliver flashes back to that fatal moment; and Ed’s bent, grieving silhouette pours his granddaughter’s ashes into the bay at sunset.

A discussion guide provides probing questions. The film is the first of a three-part set about alcohol; the second part is “Bait & Switch,” a sketch comedy to be released this year. (415) 516-9538, http://www.wcee.net.