This review contains minor spoilers for the documentary Nightcrawlers.
Making a documentary about addiction or mental illness without being exploitative of the subject can be a tall order. By and large, Stephen McCoy’s Nightcrawlers manages to pull it off. While that may be because McCoy quickly becomes the subject of his own documentary, it’s worth at least acknowledging the care that he shows to the strangers he films.
When the project began, Nightcrawlers was meant to document the lives of the homeless and addicted on the streets of Boston. The film kicks off with McCoy’s last night in high school, and quickly exposes the party lifestyle that he and his friends enjoyed. Through the span of five years, we watch him spiral into the very subjects he meant to document: addiction and homelessness. There’s a contrast to what we see when he’s filming the original intended subjects and himself. Because the director aimed to show the community a modicum of respect, what we see when he’s on camera is infinitely more rough.
In the moments where McCoy does have other subjects in frame, there seems to always be music. There’s a lot about the documentary that’s grating, as any raw depiction of addiction should be, but it was the music from the men and women on the streets of Boston that stood out the most. The music played by the homeless community on a myriad of different instruments isn’t used to add a sunny angle to homelessness or addiction, but rather to illustrate the human side of the community that many folks choose to ignore.
By including the beauty of their songs, Nightcrawlers humanizes an often-dehumanized group of people. The songs are often upbeat and full of joy, acting as a contrast to the tracks that typically play over McCoy’s descent into addiction. The music is grating on its own, but it feels almost as if it’s all much louder than what we see on the streets. While it meets the need of making these moments more jarring, I found myself thankful that I had the ability to turn the sound down while watching.
As previously mentioned, the music blaring at the house parties isn’t the only part of the film that’s used to depict a rocky plunge into addiction. It’s shot as an observational documentary, with no narration or explanation as to what you’re seeing. When added into the frequently shaky camera work and jaunty editing, there are moments that become a bit much. Though that seems to be the point, your mileage may vary on the watchability front.
Though the focus is on addiction, it seems appropriate to acknowledge McCoy’s charisma throughout the project. When we’re not focusing on his newfound addiction, we’re watching him converse easily not just with his friends, but with the “Nightcrawlers” themselves. He both treats them as people, and easily engages them in meaningful conversations.
In the end, Nightcrawlers shines the brightest when it focuses on the homeless community of Boston as it had originally intended. While it’s unfortunate that they’re sidelined for the story of addiction that would unfold in his own life, the documentary does manage to get the horrors of the lifestyle across well enough.
/Film Rating: 6 out of 10
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