A new film about teenagers in the Costwolds uses real-life heroin addicts in its cast to reveal the seamy underbelly of rural England.
Better Things, which will screened today in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, is set in a part of Gloucestershire better known for its celebrity residents and wealthy "second homers" than hard drug users. Its director, Duane Hopkins, said he decided to make the drama after realising how many of his old friends had struggled with addiction in the Cotswolds, where he grew up.
"I moved away when I was 20 but my experiences of the place are very different to how it is normally seen," he said. "We are used to seeing drug use in an urban environment but this is an honest interpretation of the atmosphere in which I grew up. It was quite extreme. Every time I went back home, I'd hear that a friend had died from heavy drug use. It was the same with my brother's friends, so I started looking into it and realised it was happening in other areas of rural England."
As part of his research, Hopkins visited drug rehabilitation units and talked to addicts and parents of teenagers who died from overdoses. He enlisted drug users as actors in the film – the cast of 21 includes 18 non-professional actors – because he wanted properly to reflect the ravaging effects of heroin abuse.
"When I started casting, I went deep into the sub-culture of those still using it or some who had come off it two years ago," Hopkins said. "If you use heroin for more than three years, it leaves a very physical impression on a person. This is something the camera can reveal.
"I also have a philosophy of working with non-professional actors. Only three of the people in speaking roles have acting experience." The Cotwolds has gained a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, with people such as the supermodel Kate Moss buying homes there. But Hopkins said it had an "underclass" to whom he wanted to give a voice.
Peter Carlton, a commissioning executive at Film 4, which part-funded Better Things, said he was drawn to the concept of presenting the darker side of the Coltwolds and "holding a mirror up to middle England". The film is described as an unflinching portrayal of addiction which features a teenager's heroin death as a central plotline.
Hopkins, 34, who now lives in Newcastle, picked up an award at Cannes in 2001 for his short film Field, about countryside teenagers who are driven to an extreme act by boredom. Hopkins has won 35 international cinema awards, including one for another short film, Love Me Or Leave Me Alone,
He studied painting and photography before he turned to film-making and still produces photographs and art installations alongside his movie work.
His latest film tells not just the story of young people struggling in a world of limited opportunities but also of their families trying to hold relationships together.