Very rarely does the debut film from a first time writer/director grab you the way “Straight Outta Tompkins” does. Its premise—an abandoned, once-promising New York prep school kid getting sucked into the vicious, harrowing, and unrelenting subculture of the drug trade and addiction—is presented with stark realism and a decadent grace by writer/director Zephyr Benson. Not bad for a budget of about $160,000.
The 22 year old Benson (click here for the FSM interview with Benson) also plays Gene, the protagonist in question who thinks he can merely dip his toe into this world that on the surface offers the usual enticements: quick money, excitement, and the surrogate family to replace the one that has been taken from him in one way or another since he was seven years old.
But he quickly finds that there is no dabbling. And taken as a metaphor for drug dependency in general and the havoc it wreaks, “Tompkins” is more than a cautionary tale. It’s a dead blow hammer. Not necessarily noisy, but the hit it delivers stays with you.
Surrounded by an able cast of working New York actors, Benson and cinematographer Brandon Roots imbue “Tompkins” with a healthy dose of claustrophobic reality. Most movies about New York, even ones about the drug trade or other seamy sides of society, have a gloss about them. The way this movie is shot and the spaces the characters inhabit will affect the way you view this film. These are real New York apartments, not the usual bright, open and airy spaces we’ve seen a thousand times. The hallways are tight, narrow, and long. And then they open up into another small chamber, where the characters bounce off each other like wayward molecules.
The story begins with Gene, a sarcastic, athletic hustler who deals a little pot with his friend but who otherwise seems to have a pretty good head on his shoulders. He’s being scouted by colleges for his baseball ability; and he even exhibits a moral compass now and then.
We see him sitting in a classroom, staring down at an aptitude test of some kind. The question asks the student what he or she wants to do with their life. And that’s a loaded question for a kid who lost his mother to cancer, who watched his father abandon him for an overseas business and a new family, and a sister that would rather share her bed with a series of different bodies than look after her younger brother. This classroom shot is a narrative device that Benson uses to anchor the film as Gene, in his own voice, offers observations about the situations he finds himself in.
His small-time pot dealing with friend Ivan (Adonis Rodriguez) leads him to a meeting with Cruz (Aaron Costa Ganis), a Lower East Side drug dealer with an engaging personality and a quick wit. At first, the opportunity seems too good to be true, and that of course is the point. Even the supposedly smart kids like Gene can see the offer, but they can’t see the payment. Cruz shows him around and gives the pitch. Deal a little weed, make some cash, and you can go on your merry way.
Only there is no merry way. Gene finds himself getting deeper and deeper into the game, and after a run in with his landlord (an uncredited cameo by Whoopi Goldberg), he finds that not only has his father physically abandoned him, he has also financially abandoned him as well, leaving $15,000 in unpaid rent. This sends Gene right down one of those tight, narrow hallways, and he sets up housekeeping with Cruz and two of his crew—dimwitted Sam (Jon McCormick) and hilariously tightly wound Bobby (Mike Steinmetz).
There are things that Gene thinks he didn’t sign up for. Meeting with up with intermediaries who are also mercenary killers, suddenly dealing hard drugs like heroin, violent confrontations (a scene involving a baseball bat and Gene’s hand is particularly grisly), and his own burgeoning addiction as he snorts and smokes everything in sight while taking downers to level himself off turns Gene into a person he barely recognizes.
While the plot of the film is ostensibly the goings-on of a New York drug crew seen through the eyes of a high school student (who is an active participant), and the bleak consequences of each and every move they make, “Tompkins” is more than that. It’s about the mechanics of the drug trade (of which Benson shows he has a very good handle), the lives destroyed, and the fact that all of this is weaving its way through the days and nights of the regular world. There is a through line but the interest also lay in the little moments: the humor, the pseudo-family bonding, the seduction of the money and an ability to live a life free from authority.
Benson and Ganis turn in electrifying performances, using vastly different energies and styles to play people whom you may want to visit once in a while, but letting them into your life will leave permanent scarring. Benson plays Gene as a kid seduced by the lifestyle even though he thinks he has all the answers; while he may have the surface trappings, he needs love and stability. The transformation from fresh-faced, cocky scholarship kid into drugged out, paranoid wannabe kingpin is amazing.
As Cruz, Ganis is the seducer, much like heroin itself (It’s easy to see why Benson has stated that Cruz represents the drug and its effects in interviews). He is alternately warm and funny–a father figure who literally wraps his arms around Gene to bring him into the fold. But the dangerous undercurrent is always right there with Cruz, and when it comes to the surface, when the spiral finally starts to hit bottom, those aren’t arms wrapped around Gene. Those are hands at his throat.
“Tompkins” is by no means perfect; a little more polishing of the story and a few stronger performances here and there could have helped in a few moments. But with a shooting schedule of less than 20 days, and a budget that most major productions waste on a week’s worth of catering, its gritty realism and fresh take on the underworld of the drug culture—whose inhabitants are growing younger and younger all the time—make Benson a filmmaking voice worth listening to. And “Straight Outta Tompkins” is a movie well worth seeing.
“Straight Outta Tompkins” opens March 6 in New York (Cinema Village) and L.A. (Laemmle NoHo) and then on March 31 it will be available on VOD, iTunes, and Amazon.
DIRECTOR: Zephyr Benson SCREENWRITER: Zephyr Benson CAST: Zephyr Benson, Aaron Costa Ganis, Jon McCormick, Mike Steinmetz