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In New York City's Harlem circa 1987, an overweight, abused, illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Winter in hard-scrabble upstate New York. Irene is working class, a mother of two boys, and a user of cocaine. She gets into trouble and checks into a rehab program where she meets Bob, a nurse. After she goes home to her husband and returns to her job as a grocery checker, she stays in touch with Bob and the intimations of an affair begin. By now, she's changed jobs, cleaning houses with her friend Lucy. The temptations of drugs are close at hand. Can she handle sobriety? What about Bob? Written by
A Documentary-Feeling Close-up of a Mother's Addiction
"Down to the Bone" follows in the tradition of classic addiction and rehab movies (such as "Clean and Sober"), but it doesn't stoop to any clichés.
The key to the story's credibility is the director's documentary style, the use of authentic, working class locales in Upstate New York, and terrific acting.
Debut director Debra Granik and co-writer Richard Lieske don't follow the typical trajectory of horrific addiction experiences ("Lost Weekend," "Leaving Las Vegas," "Requiem for a Dream," etc.), though there's some frightening close calls, but quietly build an accretion of how a drug habit affects a mother and her family in her daily life as a cashier and living in a house her ne'er do well husband never finishes renovating. With no explication or back story, "Irene"s life plays out for us completely through what we see in grainy digital video and the characters' inarticulate interactions.
Rehab is only the half-way point in a continuing struggle (and we have seen the 12-steps many times but perhaps not this drearily matter-of-factly) and the film is brilliant at demonstrating just how difficult it is to quit when everywhere there are not only triggers for physical need but how those around her benefited in some way from her behavior when she was high and keep encouraging her to indulge. Lapsing is cynically referred to as "the 13th step." None of these insights are hammered home redundantly as we see her frustrations and resiliency.
I've noted Vera Farmiga in various TV series, but here she reveals guts, strength and range below her fragile beauty as she very believably, step by step, gives "Irene" backbone. Her chemistry with a seductively magnetic Hugh Dillon is terrific as their relationship goes from attraction to risk to independence.
Though at one point New York City is a bit tritely used as a tempting source for drugs, the primary settings in snowy Kingston and Ulster County, with its downscale stores, weatherbeaten houses, high unemployment and desolate highway scapes set the characters in a very believable, multi-racial setting.
There is a bit of heavy-handed symbolism with a pet snake, but the young children are terrifically natural, especially in their whiney-ness and physical reactions.
The soundtrack unobtrusively includes an interesting selection of indie rock, including by Dillon's band.
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