Steel City
Hearts of Steel?

Alcoholism may be less of a “secret” in our society these days, but that doesn’t mean it is has become any less destructive. Steel City delves into the generational and hereditary aspects of the disease while exploring the complex relationships between a father and his sons.

Carl Lee is a lifetime alcoholic whose family history is marred and scarred by his drinking and abuse, and finally by his abandonment of his wife and sons (who were old enough to recognize abandonment). At the beginning of the film Carl is in jail, accused of killing a woman while driving drunk. His only visitor (beside attorneys and the like) is his younger son, PJ, a remorseful young man, brought to tears by what the town only thinks of as his father’s most recent drunken mistake.

John Heard as Carl in Steel CityAs the years have passed, PJ and his brother have gone in fairly different directions: bitter, like-father-like-son Ben takes a low-paying but solid job at the steel factory in Alton (hence the title), choosing to cheat on his wife and child by having an affair with the barmaid at the tavern he frequents, pushing his own alcoholic limits. Younger PJ tries to earn some money while he’s trying to figure out where he wants his life to go, tenaciously hanging on to a dishwashing/busboy position, since his jailed father can no longer pay the mortgage on the house in which they both lived. Ultimately, when his victim-laden attitude and his tendency to jump to conclusions get him fired, he seeks housing with his uncle Vic, a wise, shoot-from-hip character who is willing to help PJ get back on track.

The main characterizations in this film are quite well developed. As PJ, Tom Guiry plays a young man’s man, fighting tears of anger as well as fear, compounded by embarrassment over his father’s condition (alcoholism) and what it has finally led to (a fatal car collision). He’s trying to break the pattern of drunken physical and verbal violence, perhaps trying to pay penance for his father’s alcoholism; yet in the conversations held in the jailhouse visitor’s room, the family dynamics are clear, if unspoken. In fact, much of what writer-director Brian Jun’s movie has to say is unspoken—facial expressions, body language, flashbacks, and barely audible grunts and groans bring a realistic feel to the movie by demonstrating how some dysfunctional families attempt to communicate.

Jun shot his film in his native Alton, using real prison cells, real guards, real local police cruisers. His budget may have been small, but the cinematic scope and art of his movie are far from low-rent. Add to that Jun’s ability to coax stunningly believable performances from Heard and Guiry, especially, and you have a stirring story with a subtle yet profoundly poignant ending which begs to bring up the topics of substitutionary atonement and paying penance for one’s own sins as well as the sins of others.

Steel City is no flowery-happy summer blockbuster, but it does an excellent job of portraying real-life families and the generational effects of addiction and its consequences. John Heard’s performance as a far-too-laid-back prisoner is rankling at first, but as he reveals his character through conversations with PJ, we learn where his demeanor is coming from. Likewise, Tom Guiry nails a tormented youth caught in an abused and abandoned child’s body; his deep and fiery emotions draw the audience toward him, wanting to both shelter him and help him grow up—which is exactly what Uncle Vic steps in to do.

Steel City is rated R “for language and brief drug use.” Yes, there is language—many alcoholics choose a limited vocabulary when under the influence. I would add that the subject matter is more for adults as well, though older teens may be ready to see it if given the chance to talk about it with mature adults.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jenn attended and press screening of Steel City.