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From Straight-A Student to Prostitute in 3 Weeks?

The recent film "Traffic" offers a vision of drug addiction based on one character's plummet from suburban boredom to full-blown heroin junkie in a matter of weeks. The critics are praising the actress who portrays the young junkie, but are they ignoring realities of drug use? Read up on the issue and sound off on this controversial new film in the WireTap message boards.
Traffic Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic" has not been advertised as a movie made for youth. Maybe that's why, although the high school students in the film are at the center of the story line, most critics have had very little to say about the often confusing, simplifying statements the film makes about young people and substance use.

Soderbergh seems to have some lofty goals, such as undermining the mainstream media's portrayal of the drug war as a battle of good and evil and illustrating how often the reality of substance use and abuse touches our personal lives. But the light his film sheds on the main character's teenage daughter as the "victim" of the "harsh world of drug addiction" creates an image that is at best simplifying and at worst dangerously two-dimensional.

"Early scenes of her stoned friends sprawled around a fancy living room, drinking, sniffing cocaine and mumbling fuzzily about their discontents offer a devastating vision of youthful suburban ennui."
Many recent articles about the film have commented on the acting ability of Erika Christensen, who plays the role. Sources such as TeenHollywood.com, a website about rising teen stars, described her role as a breakthrough. In an interview on their site, the writer says that her character has a nice arc -- from hanging with her friends and partying to the desperation of selling her body for drugs. While even the "adult" critics are talking about a possible academy award nomination for the actress, very few people seem willing to comment on the believability and the implications of the actions her character takes.

One New York Times article reads:

"While [Michael Douglas' drug czar character] is exploring [the Mexican American border], Caroline is rapidly succumbing to crack addiction under the tutelage of her cynical boyfriend, Seth (Topher Grace), her classmate at the exclusive Cincinnati Country Day School and as a scary a contemporary teenager as you're likely find in a recent movie. A high achiever who is sullen and angry beneath her preppy glass, Caroline quickly plummets to the bottom. Early scenes of her stoned friends sprawled around a fancy living room, drinking, sniffing cocaine and mumbling fuzzily about their discontents offer a devastating vision of youthful suburban ennui."

On Salon.com, film critic Charles Taylor writes:

"The movie does not shy away from portraying the pleasure of drugs, and Caroline's initiation into free-base cocaine by [her boyfriend] Seth is a voluptuous rush. Her head rolls back, and tears of joy trickle from her eyes as Seth repeats in a soothing voice, "You see? You see?" before making love to her. From that moment, Caroline is hooked, and she becomes a glazed-eyed baby-faced demon whose precipitous fall lands her in a seedy hotel under the thumb of the drug-dealing pimp who introduced her to heroin."

Traffic One writer from the Village Voice had this to say:

"As the daughter, Christensen is remarkable. She plays off the mess she's sinking into against the character's lack of worldliness, and she uses her look (like the baby fat still clinging to her cheeks) to suggest a girl who remains unformed. I wish that the script didn't provide her with such a conventional reason for the character's drug abuse (she's unable to cope with the pressure of being a straight-A student) or offer her a false, hopeful ending."

In a recent Movieline interview Christensen described her role in Traffic, saying "I'm a Goody Two-shoes who's never taken anything stronger than Tylenol, and Steven directed me like a good parent who trusted I would do the right thing. So I played her like a bored girl blessed with everything except parents actually involved in her life."

It makes the audience wonder: what if she had taken something stronger than Tylenol? What if she was like most 17 year olds and had experimented with marijuana or speed or ecstasy?

I'm a Goody Two-shoes who's never taken anything stronger than "Tylenol."
And further questions arise: Was this character based on reality? Do many people slip from a stressful private school environment to a life of prostitution in several weeks time? Is the audience made to believe that all drug use is the path to such complete ruin? Does the choice to illustrate the intensity of addiction in the life of a person who is white, wealthy, and from a stable home hit its target? Or does it just make us roll our eyes?

Christensen herself says "I hope people that are involved in the drug world go see this film. On a nationwide level, this is going to make a lot of people think."

If you were an addict, what would it make you think? (Other than that you wished you had a wealthy politician to fund your habit?) Sound off about the movie and Erika Christensen's role on the WireTap message boards.

Sources:

Hype: Erika Christensen by Stephen Rebello, Movie line

"Traffic", by Charles Taylor, Salon.com

"Traffic': Teeming Mural of a War Fought and Lost" By Stephen Holden, The New York Times

The Village Voice

TeenHollywood.com