What Doesn't Kill You, a tough, authentic street drama born, bred, and shot in the no-spin zone of working-class South Boston, doesn't spell out the origin of the movie's title. Nor does it complete the second half of Friedrich Nietzsche's famous declaration to which it alludes the part about making you stronger. There's no need for moralizing when the actions and consequences are so clear and the story of two local toughs at a critical juncture in their lives is so strikingly free of romanticized Southie swagger.
It helps, surely, that Brian Goodman, an actor making a strong directorial debut, tells a version of his own life story here. And it's evident that a serious commitment to the tenets of 12-step recovery programs keeps him modest and honest about what works for getting stronger (if you keep working it).
In a harmonious pairing of temperaments and talents for portraying flawed men who enforce their codes of ethics on a sliding scale, Ethan Hawke and Mark Ruffalo play Paulie and Brian, respectively best friends from the Southie hood who fall under the sway of a local crime boss (played with authority by Goodman). Paulie, single and loving it, keeps his head clear for business. But Brian, a husband and father under pressure, burrows downward into drugs and drink. (Amanda Peet is terrific as Brian's worn-down wife, sick of seeing her man disappear before her eyes.) Goodman the filmmaker eloquently conveys what Goodman the addict learned: that the climb back up and out is hell and worth it. B+