With his debut feature "Cook County," writer-director David Pomes takes a confident dive into dicey waters to track a grim tale of a crystal meth-addicted family. Unfortunately, strong performances and authentic atmosphere can't quite mask a herky-jerky storyline lacking a distinct center.
The action takes place largely around the East Texas flophouse that's both meth lab and home to the film's nominal engine, a mercurial tweaker nicknamed Uncle Bump (Anson Mount, frighteningly good). His adaptable 6-year-old daughter, Deandra (Makenna Fitzsimmons) and anxious teenage nephew, Abe (Ryan Donowho), share the trashy digs and serve as reluctant pawns in Bump's illicit — if often flagrant — operation.
Enter Abe's father — and Bump's brother — Sonny (Xander Berkeley), a reformed user who returns after a few incommunicado years with still-weak parenting skills, a bit of largesse and a hidden agenda. Some vivid episodes ensue, including a carrot-dangling trip to suburban normalcy for Abe and Deandra and, later, a vile test of Bump's fatherly concern — which he fails monstrously. It all leads to an ending that's as inevitable as it is cathartic.
The backwoods, drug-centric setting — not to mention its rogue's gallery of off-grid lowlifes — will surely invite comparisons to last year's superior "Winter's Bone," although "Cook's" 2007 copyright indicates Pomes' cameras rolled first.
"Cook County." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. At Laemmle's Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica; Laemmle's Fallbrook 7, West Hills; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.