Mama Junkie

A young actress shines as a cokehead mom in the harrowing Down to the Bone

Those among you who are easily impressionable, be warned: Down to the Bone features irresponsible behavior that should not be duplicated at home. On Halloween night, as she preps her kids for costumed fun, Irene (Vera Farmiga) augments her own witch costume by ... blacking out one of her teeth with a Sharpie marker. Not the best idea, kids: You might take in some bad fumes that way. Oh, and she also snorts coke.

Few of us go to the cinema with the desire to have a bad time. But if you're capable of psyching yourself up for the unpleasantness of drug addiction and rehab, Down to the Bone is worth the effort. It comes without the comic hook of Hollywood rehab flicks like 28 Days, but that's because it's at least somewhat grounded in reality. Sandra Bullock may be too famous to make herself look all that bad, but Vera Farmiga, being an unknown -- though probably not for long -- can get down and dirty.

We never know exactly what started Irene down the path to addiction, a fact that's initially frustrating but comes to be irrelevant. In this small, snow-covered town in upstate New York, everyone is on something. It's just how they deal. Irene's husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), takes the moral high ground with her, but even as she fights her addiction, he's always seen with a beer or a joint -- or both -- in his hand. He's also a casual user of cocaine, if such a thing is possible.

For many addicts, it takes an all-time low to force that push into rehab, and for Irene, that moment comes as she's trying to get her dealer (Terry McKenna) to accept her son's birthday check from Grandma as payment for her debts. Even he won't stoop so low as to take it.

So while on vacation from her job as a grocery store cashier, she checks in under the watchful eye of a slow-speaking, shaven-headed counselor with one really large earring (co-screenwriter Richard Lieske). At the clinic, she re-encounters Bob (Hugh Dillon), whom she had met at the Halloween party, where he was "dressed" as a nurse, because that's what he does. He's also a recovering addict, and he offers Irene some help, though he may not be the best man for that job. Sure enough, their relationship becomes more than professional, and if you've ever wondered why people in 12-step programs aren't supposed to sleep together right off the bat, well, this movie is about to show you, in detail.

There's a subplot about Irene trying to get a pet snake for her kids (this film is an expansion of director Debra Granik's 1997 short Snake Feed). She eventually settles on an aging mother snake that's available cheap, having provided the pet store with many babies over the years. Presumably, you can read your own metaphor into that, especially when we get a loving close-up of Mama Serpent swiftly constricting a mouse to death (there's no Humane Society stamp of approval on the end credits). On the other end of the metaphor scale, there's a box full of kittens that shows up unexpectedly, without explanation. See, Irene's all soft and innocent at times, but her habit can make her a voracious predator. The severed deer head she's given as a gift seems more like a sight gag, however.

Less symbolically clear is the constant use of American flags as a motif -- on a cake, in a drug dealer's window, on a porch. Is Granik trying to say that America itself leads to drugs, or perhaps that in America, this is actually more normal than you think?

Considering that Farmiga is as good-looking a woman as many better-paid actresses, it's a refreshing change of pace to see the sexual elements of the story played out really awkwardly, from Irene's somewhat pathetic courtship with Bob to an erotic card game she tries playing with her husband that only amounts to them sitting uncomfortably across the table from each other with no clothes on, desperate for a drug high to relieve the emotional discomfort.

And she's not just a pretty face -- Farmiga seems to have done some pretty serious Method acting, having taken up smoking for the role and come away hooked. At one point, she appears to get a very real nose piercing. If it's fake, bravo for visual trickery; if not, brava for her.

 
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