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Crystal City

(2019) *** Unrated
89 min. Formerly Productions. Director: Terrence Crawford.

/content/films/5164/1.jpgWith its fast-acting addiction—not only its euphoric high but its capacity to rewire the brain—crystal meth has proven to be one of the most difficult drugs to kick, and one of the most destructive. It's also an addiction that, as one expert notes in the new documentary Crystal City, has reached "epidemic levels within the gay community.” The reasons for that, and the ways by which many addicts are pursuing sobriety and peace of mind, provide the subject matter of Terrence Crawford's potent film.

The potency of meth is on the rise, along with usage, across the board (contributing to 2017's 10,721 fatal meth overdoses), but the film explores "the perfect storm for gay people” that's led, for example, to a recent 300-400% rise in meth use among New York City's gay men (“all walks of life—from the gutter to the penthouse," as one expert puts it). New York serves as "ground zero" for Crystal City as Crawford sails into that perfect storm to gather anecdotal data on how anxiety, depression, and addiction issues in feed into a "chemsex" phenomenon. Chemsex amounts to a self-medicating practice of exponential pleasure, from elevated confidence (in part due to meth's contribution to a skinnier body) and a sense of ease in hooking up (abetted by dating apps) to the eventual orgasmic boost.

Crystal City also takes a historical perspective on once-mainstream American methamphetamine use and the influence of AIDS in creating a demand within the gay community, whether due to terrified despair in the 1980s or the party-down attitude of surviving and thriving since the advent of effective AIDS treatments. Crawford's drive to make the film, his access to addicts, and his sensitive storytelling have partly to do with his own experience as a gay man who experienced meth addiction and found his way back to health, although he wisely refrains from telling his own story on film. Rather, he interviews and profiles a cross-section of gay New Yorkers to demonstrate the spectrum of meth addicts from dangerously dysfunctional to hearteningly flourishing.

The pacy use of ten extraneous chapter headings gives off the impression, rightly or wrongly, of a lack of depth on each subject. (Since the film is still on the festival circuit, further edits are possible.) But Crawford's empathy and care for his subjects shine through, inevitably taking the audience on an emotional journey. A gaunt young man named Kristian unapologetically and concerningly describes the intersection of his addiction and his sex life, even shooting up on camera. On the other end of addiction is Rick, a sage, sober elder who gives back by mentoring younger addicts.

Kristian's alarming struggle contrasts to the lion's share of Crawford's subjects who are actively pursuing sobriety by avenues of therapy and 12-step programs. Most surprisingly, Crystal City demonstrates the healing power of art, like the songwriter who movingly expresses his pain of addiction through music for which he has found vocal and instrumental accompaniment in a collective—accompaniment for his journey of recovery lest he be alone with it. The very existence of Crystal City testifies to the same theme of art that can be therapeutic for the artist and communities alike.
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