“What the fuck am I doing here?” asks the narrator towards the end of Lost Boys. A similar question passed through this reviewer’s mind multiple times whilst screening the film. Lost Boys is both inspired and driven by questionable choices. It has an admirable premise, but the execution is way off and the result is a highly problematic documentary that commits numerous ethical gaffes. Its inclusion in this year’s Hot Docs line-up is rather dubious.
The film is a personal exploration as director Joonas Neuvonen, voiced with deep menace by actor Pekka Strang in narration, follows-up his 2010 Reindeerspotting: Escape from Santaland. He reunites with subjects Jani and Antti upon his release from prison, and the trio embarks on a hedonistic blitz in Cambodia, sampling every drug and woman they can find. Neuvonen explains how he returned to Finland, but Jani and Antti stayed and eventually went missing. News soon arises that Jani is dead in an apparent suicide. Neuvonen heads back to Cambodia to seek the truth.
While Neuvonen’s desire for closure and justice is understandable, his approach doesn’t serve his friends admirably and betrays many of the people he encounters along the way. For example, he covertly records their activity in the nightclubs and red light district, offering point of view shots of a prostitute performing fellatio on him, as well as close-ups of himself banging a hooker doggy-style and presenting footage of a woman fingering herself in bed. These women presumably didn’t sign release forms, and this exploitative footage wouldn’t even be acceptable by Pornhub’s standards—its inclusion is inappropriate by any measure.
The naughty bits of Lost Boys, brief as they are, join other errors in judgement that betray a documentarian’s code of ethics. Lost Boys extensively uses footage in which Jani, Antti, and their friends are high on drugs. From smoking chemical drugs to shooting drugs intravenously into their necks and arms, the film offers some unwatchable lows. They are stoned, drunk, and delirious in most of the footage. As an alternative, Margaret Byrne’s Hot Docs selection Any Given Day exemplifies the correct approach to using footage with subjects grabbling with substance abuse. It requires context and a proper commitment on the filmmaker’s part to engage with the material, neither of which receives due diligence from Neuvonen and co-director Sadri Cetinkaya.
On one hand, Lost Boys fairly suggests that Neuvonen’s friends hit a point of no return as addiction consumed them and as they befriended some shady characters along the way. On the other hand, Neuvonen exploits his friends and their fellow addicts. They are visibly not in any state of mind to consent to being recorded.
Similarly, Lost Boys treads ethically impure filmmaking as Neuvonen chases his friend’s ghost and gets testimony from Cambodians in varying states of intoxication. The film’s few sober characters struggle with the language barrier, in some cases protesting their discomfort to Neuvonen in broken English. What emerges is a xenophobic portrait of back alleys and nightclubs viewed through a Western gaze.
When Neuvonen returns to prison at the end of the film, it’s unclear what purpose the trip served. Lost Boys equally lacks reflection and catharsis. Neuvonen might have served time for drug charges, but this critic is issuing a warrant for crimes against cinema. Yuck.
Lost Boys screens at Hot Docs 2021.