(director/writer/editor/cinematographer: Stephen J. Szklarski; screenwriter: Lillian Miranda; editor: Larry Provost; music: Lars Alive/Lewis Elderlane Experience; cast: Stealth, Danny Di Eduardo, James Miller, Ron Klepper, Mike Hatten, Mark Jurczak, Cheyenne Webber; Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lillian Miranda; Alliance International Pictures; 2003)

“Spares no feelings as it peels away the harsh truths of living as a slave to a drug habit.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Stephen J. Szklarski’s hard-hitting documentary Union Square is an ugly realistic look into the world of seven homeless heroin addicts who live in historic Union Square Park, in New York City. The park is located in the heavily trafficked downtown business district, where there are many stores and restaurants and luxury apartment buildings that surround it. The documentary spares no feelings as it peels away the harsh truths of living as a slave to a drug habit for the seven twentysomethings who allowed the cameras to follow and capture their hardships. They are all articulate and talk freely of their experiences as they realize they are on a losing path that leads to either prison or death, but they are so trapped in a vicious cycle that they can’t seem to make rational decisions to save themselves. The only sane alternative they seem to have is to detox and then go into rehab. The other choice is to continue taking from three to six bags of a heroin a day just to feed their habit. It means that every few hours they need a fix or else they can’t function. Since the drugs are expensive, which go for $20 to $30 a bag, the subjects are forced to panhandle or steal. Ron, who is gay, tells of scoring money for the heroin by letting a local middle-aged man pay him $40 for a blowjob.

The film is broken down into chapters such as Family, Routine, Hustle, Compulsion, and Last Word. The seven males and one female member of the all white group sadly relate their homeless experience to “getting a life sucked out of you.” Danny, whose face is wrapped with a large bandage covering his left eye, lied and stole from his friends and family to support his habit. His wife eventually walked out on him and took their three small children. Cheyenne was herself a product of drug-addicted parents and was taken from them. The pleasant New Jersey gal started off using heroin only on weekends but graduated to making it a way of life. As a result her young daughter was taken away from her and she ended up homeless. Mike is Cheyenne’s guitar playing boyfriend, who became hooked when he started shooting up instead of snorting. James seems like a lost cause, with no inclination to change, who has been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and prisons all due to heroin. Mark also has been in and out of prisons, always finding a way back to the street and heroin. He mentions “To me it’s like a medicine. It keeps me good otherwise I feel like shit.” Stealth is in the process of tattooing his whole body and sports a number of body piercings. At one point he said about heroin “Nothing else in the world feels better.” By the film’s conclusion he went back to Long Island but was still on the needle. Ron was the only one who followed through on a detox and rehab program provided by Beth Israel Hospital, and is now working as a PR man and living at home heroin-free with his mother. The addicts all seem to concur that they were drawn to heroin because it numbs their pain and prevents them from feeling disturbed over things.

There are some two million heroin addicts in the United States, and I would imagine this group is a representative lot. Union Square paints a scary picture of youngsters ruining their lives, spending all their energy to barely survive. For most Americans, these are the faceless homeless one sees in many of the urban areas that they will most likely never get to know as fellow human beings. This documentary serves to humanize them and at the same time it gets the addicts to blame no one but themselves for their self-destruction. Some viewers might not want to watch the addicts shootup or might be turned off by their profanity or the grim reality of street life, but for those who wish to see the way it really is on the streets this film will more than adequately serve that purpose.

Union Square Poster

REVIEWED ON 5/11/2004 GRADE: B-    https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/