On one of the special features included on the Sling Blade 10th-anniversary DVD, Billy Bob Thornton acknowledges that he's been praised as a courageous actor, then adroitly dismisses the very notion that film acting can be brave. There's a good deal of truth to that: Starring in a controversial movie like Bad Santa certainly qualifies as a gutsy choice for an actor of his stature, but it's not exactly equivalent to working as a fireman or undercover police officer. Nevertheless, it seems unfair not to praise the courage of Harry Eden's remarkable lead performance in Pure. Single-handedly carrying a grim, harrowing, working-class drama populated by a motley assortment of junkies, hookers, dealers, and junkie-hookers represents a formidable challenge for any actor, but it seems especially impressive for a pint-sized thespian still eagerly anticipating the onset of puberty.
Pure revolves around a remarkable lead performance by a child actor, but it's far from a kid's movie. Offering a child's-eye view of heroin addiction and withdrawal, the film casts Eden as the prematurely responsible son of heroin-addicted widow Molly Parker. Since his mother is unable to take care of herself, the roles in the family have become reversed, with Eden serving as the diligent caretaker and Parker the needy dependent. Parker tries desperately to get off junk, but her dealer boyfriend (David Wenham) has a vested interest in making sure she remains addicted. Meanwhile, Eden finds a respite of sorts from his miserable home life through his strange friendship with a pregnant, heroin-smoking hooker-waitress played by a needy, desperate, surprisingly convincing Keira Knightley.
Director Gillies MacKinnon previously ventured into this territory with 1998's Hideous Kinky, another drama about the tricky relationship between an unconventional mother and her resentful progeny. But what makes Pure resonate emotionally is Eden's clear-eyed, unsentimental performance, which conveys an adult-beyond-his-years savvy born of a hardheaded instinct for survival rather than the usual big-eyed precociousness. From smoking heroin with Knightley to enduring a torrent of verbal abuse when he refuses to give his junk-sick mom a fix, Eden proves more than capable of handling the script's enormous emotional demands, lending the film an air of emotional authenticity even as its often treacly, overbearing score threatens to turn it into a Warhol-esque afterschool special. Pure loses a bit of its nerve in the home stretch, but Eden's unforgettable performance alone makes it a compelling portrait of a smart young boy forced to grow up way too fast.