Filmmaker Stephon Litwinczuk’s documentary Falling Up opens in 2004, focusing on the life of homeless Vietnam vet Johnny Popp. Intelligent and well-spoken, Johnny has been on the streets since his wife’s death in a car accident, eventually ending up in the Skid Row section of downtown Los Angeles. A crack addict, though one who maintains that he isn’t homeless because he smokes crack, but smokes crack because he’s homeless, Johnny’s day-to-day is made up of panhandling, crack smoking and settling in to his shopping cart to sleep. And such is his life, until he becomes the victim of a violent crime and ends up in the hospital.
Off the streets and in daily medical care, Johnny begins to re-assess his life, spurred on by the comforts of a roof over his head, a comfortable bed and the newfound companionship of another medical center resident, Lorraine. As he goes about setting his life right, we get to see the transformation take place. At that point, the film explores the systems in place to help, or hinder, the homeless when they try to get off the streets.
The film has a polished look to it, which is saying something because filming started in 2004 and the “everything shoots in HD” prosumer trend hadn’t taken hold yet (at least I don’t think it had). Likewise, for a film shot predominantly on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, the audio is strong too. It’d be somewhat forgivable had it not been quite as crisp, but it exists on the “clear” side of the audio quality spectrum most of the time. And while it fits in that “no-man’s land” running time of being shorter than a feature but far longer than a short, it never feels too long or repetitive. It seems to be just right for what it is.
By focusing specifically on Johnny Popp, filmmaker Litwinczuk found a subject that may have started out homeless by choice, but he also always seems able to turn his life around, as you would hope anyone would be able to, given the right support. In that way, the film is at some points sad, but always hopeful, even when he’s putting a crack pipe to his lips.
Falling Up is full of insight on the homeless situation in downtown Los Angeles, but it never gets preachy and maintains a healthy separation from melodrama, even though life can get pretty dramatic. The camera captures all, and while other films might focus in on Johnny’s crack addiction in the most depraved of deliveries, this documentary goes another route, presenting it as it is… which is not just commonplace, but as routine as, say, having a morning coffee. It’s a powerful portrayal of reality in all its complications; as intriguing and educational it is in its straightforward study of the homeless situation, it is also a hopeful tale and, ultimately, a love story.
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