The picturesque market town of Hebden Bridge is nestled in the beautiful rolling Pennine valleys of West Yorkshire. It’s a bohemian place popular with tourists and alternative types, but filmmaker Jez Lewis finds himself returning with increasing frequency for funerals of suicide victims. Seeking answers for this spate of drink- and drug-related deaths, Lewis tracks down his old friend Cass, hoping he’ll be able to provide an explanation. But the Cass he finds is suffering from alcoholism and liver damage, and has just been given two years to live unless he can kick his booze habit. What unfolds is a raw and honest insight into what can happen when hope seeps out of a community in a brutal and emotional documentary on grief and desperation.
Cass spends his days in the local park knocking back Special Brew with best friend Silly, whose brother was one such suicide victim. They’ve got a defeatist and almost nihilistic attitude towards their situation; pressed about how he feels about his brother’s death, Silly simply states “You shed your tears and walk away.” Lewis, intrigued at how such a sleepy idyll can have such a dark side, begins to delve into Hebden’s problems, sensing that the town “has lost its survival instinct.”
Lewis intersperses idealistic shots of old-age pensioners playing bowls with footage of Silly and his drunken friends playing tennis in a bid to emphasize the duality of the town. It works. Hebden is an enigma. It’s a pretty, bustling town, but it’s tinged with sadness and tragedy. In fact, while Lewis is in town, a 25-year-old dies from an alcohol and drugs overdose, a 21-year-old woman dies in a fire and one of Cass and Silly’s acquaintances commits suicide. It’s a hard watch, as Lewis continually confronts his audience with immediate and very real grief and anger about what is happening in Hebden.
Turning to the younger generation, Lewis is told that Hebden “is a drug town with a tourist problem” a damning indictment of the self perception of the town. Hebden’s youths directly blame the older generations for making Hebden what it has become. The problem, it seems, is that Hebden is a small town, too small in fact. Everyone knows everybody else and drugs and alcohol are readily available; it’s a self-perpetuating problem — do as your elders do.
Lewis, though, seems intent on finding a semblance of hope in this town, which Cass provides to an extent. Eventually seeking help, Cass flirts with detox (unsuccessfully) and then moves to London to start a new life. Lewis is enraptured by Cass’s progress, and Cass genuinely wants to get better, at one point uttering the melancholy words “I want to get over dying.” For a moment, it seems as if Hebden’s story will have a happy ending; yet following Cass’s departure, Silly slips further into the alcoholic abyss. Worse still, he’s in denial and he’s haunted by his foreign legion past; and when Cass returns, he falls off the wagon — as like any addict, he too easily slips into old habits.
Seeing people’s lives unravelling in such a raw and stark manner and the apparent helplessness of the situation has Lewis expressing his own frustrations, feelings which are certain to be echoed by his audience. There’s no doubt that “Shed Your Tears and Walk Away” makes for incredibly difficult viewing, but it’s also a hugely empathic portrait of the collective anguish and desperation felt by a town that has seemingly lost its soul.
Originally featured at criticsnotebook.com on on October 20, 2009