Paz de la Huerta has unquestionably seen someone rip a crack pipe in real life. It's as evident as the gloom of 2020 the first time she portrays the deranged act in the passenger seat of Hopper Penn's broken down, rusted out shitbox as viewers are introduced to the primary force behind Puppy Love, this year's semi-autobiographical follow-shot based on a year in the life of writer/director Michael Maxxis' cousin.

The upshot: Morgan, played by Penn (Sean's son), is a mentally disabled dishwasher who meets sex worker Carla, played by de la Huerta (Boardwalk EmpireChoke), after she finishes servicing his demented brother, Danny, played by the MMA fighter Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone. Morgan and Carla sort of hit it off, he searches for her on the streets, lets her live with him in his car and gets his ass kicked trying to fish her out of a dope house or three.

All this is told by Morgan via flashback to a pack of strangers in a community center hot tub as he slams cola from a two-liter bottle. "I got a hooker off crack," he announces to a girl of about 13 or 14.

He didn't.

And unfortunately, the film never made us feel much. It's an attempt at raising up humanity from the lowest of low places—something we could all use a little of in this lowest of years—but it doesn't get there. The dialogue struggles, the photography and cinematography never find a rhythm and, most disappointingly, neither Penn nor de la Huerta capture the grime, the codependence, the wild, mundane slog their real-life muses would have lived in the world of addiction and hellscape Maxxis tries to convey.

Beyond the frighteningly realistic bemusement on de la Huerta's as she hits the pipe, that is.

So, neither the dregs nor the flashes of redemption rang real for us—even limited screen time for Patricia Arquette, Wayne Newton and Michael Madsen couldn't save it.

A high—well, appropriately low—spot: Mickey Avalon's depiction of Kenny, Morgan's work supervisor and the exact kind of oozing, dangerous scumbag Maxxis must have been shooting for. There's a movie theater scene that made our flesh crawl.

The real reason to watch this thing: A musical score cooked up by Portugal the Man that comes straight out of the top drawer and an original soundtrack produced by Bruce Vig that feels as warm as old Belle and Sebastian with occasional flourishes of funk that could have been from Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings.

4
+Original, as in, actually original soundtrack; de la Huerta's crack-hit face
-Perhaps the most tepid slog through the gutter of human sadness ever filmed 

Puppy Love
Directed by Maxxis.
With de la Huerta, Penn, Cerrone and Avalon
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival, NR, 110 min.