Sister Helen

Watching a 90-minute documentary about a 69-year-old Benedictine nun who runs a home for recovering addicts in a down and dirty slum in the South Bronx may not sound too promising, but then you’ve never met Sister Helen. This is no ordinary charitable soul but a woman possessed by a mission, a tough old bird whose sensibility has been forged in the fire of multiple personal tragedies. And she’s not “cute” tough either; she’s the real deal, capable, to use her own word, of being a “bitch” and not above calling one of her tenants “a fucking liar.” As a recovered alcoholic (“recovering” seems too soft a word — one can’t imagine her lapsing), she’s familiar with the all-consuming priorities of the addicted, the false promises and weaseling attempts to manipulate, and she manages to treat her charges with a combination of genuine concern and no-nonsense strictness. Sin in this house and you’re banished.

Or at least most of the time. Although Sister Helen’s brand of tough love can seem a little grating and at times too absolutist, she can’t help but respond to a lost cause like Ashish, a 41-year-old alcoholic from India who lapses (“falls” is the Sister’s preferred term) three times during the film without totally disappearing. Like most of the other tenants, who include abusers of crack, cocaine and heroin, Ashish has reached a level of addiction where his motives have become obscured, buried beneath a horrible need. He also seems like a sweet guy who’s adopted the sister as his surrogate mother and, while she knows he’s on a fast track to an early grave, she threatens but can’t bring herself to totally abandon him.

Ashish is one of four characters we get to know (in all their opaqueness) fairly well, the others being Mel, the sister’s right-hand man, who seems settled though unsettlingly eccentric; Major, who seems to have the best shot at long sobriety until traces of an opiate show up during a routine urine test; and Robert, who abides by the program while remaining openly skeptical about the sister’s methods. And though an addict’s life can be static and dreary, there’s no shortage of dramatic developments here, plus a surprising and very moving ending. It’s a tribute to an intrepid soul, minus any maudlin crap and served up straight.


Exclusively at the Uptown Palladium 12 (250 N. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham) as part of the Detroit Docs International Film Festival — Wednesday, May 14 at 7 p.m. Call 248-644-3456.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].