Clean Slate is a documentary about addiction and recovery that manages to avoid the conventions of such stories. There aren’t any broad statistics or saccharine attempts at sugarcoating the very difficult experiences of the men it follows through their time trying to achieve and maintain sobriety. It’s empathetic, emotional, and expertly made. It feels real.
When director Jared Callahan was approached by Cassidy Detmer after a speaking engagement at an Atlanta film festival, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of him. Cassidy was actively living at a recovery facility and had hatched a plan with his best friend and fellow recovering addict Josh Litton: The two were going to put all their extra energy into making a short film. Movies meant a lot to both of them, and the experience of focusing on production would hopefully give them and their friends in recovery an extra project to keep them busy. Callahan was curious enough to get coffee with Cassidy and later spent a summer with a film crew embedded at the facility, filming an intimate look at the lives of the men living there and their cinematic project.
This isn’t about the healing power of cinema, however, and things quickly go awry when Cassidy relapses and is kicked out. Josh is frustrated and heartbroken but does his best to bring his friend back into the fold. Callahan, meanwhile, followed Cassidy back into life on the outside and all its ups and downs. What seems at first like a movie about quickly making a movie becomes an extremely unsparing look at the cycle of addiction and its effect on the friends and family of the afflicted. Although it leans into the redemptive arc of recovery, it’s a long, complicated, and tragic journey.
Callahan tells both Cassidy and Josh’s stories with true empathy — how they started, what they lost along the way and why they can’t seem to stop despite everything they have going for them. It’s a chronicle of undiagnosed mental illness, of addiction, of tragic, traumatic losses that haunt both men even in their happiest hours. The intimacy is genuine and powerful, made more so by the blunt honesty with which it is rendered. At one point, Callahan asks Cassidy’s mom if she believes the film will keep him off of substances. She thinks for a moment. “No,” she says.
Most of Clean Slate was filmed several years ago. A text card toward the end reveals that one of them relapsed immediately after making the film. It pops directly after that man’s graduation from the program. It’s an enormous gut-punch dose of reality for a film seemingly headed for a high note. Thankfully, the website for the film offers additional follow-up on Josh, Cassidy and several of the men involved. Not all of them have made it to present day, but in keeping with the film’s blunt depiction of the struggles of men in rehabilitation, it’s an honest rendering of a profoundly complicated issue in which so many people find themselves and their loved ones struggling every day. This is an astonishing film.