Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Graphic After-School Special Without The Spark: To Write Love On Her Arms

The Good: Good performances, Moments of direction
The Bad: Lack of character spark, Oppressive tone, Somewhat predictable plot arc
The Basics: To Write Love On Her Arms is a glorified after-school special with an impressive cast, which fails to connect because it is so unflappably generic.

In recent years, it seems like stories of subjects that were traditionally the domain of after school television movies – alcoholism, child abuse, spousal abuse, etc. – that have a Very Special Message have managed to make the transition from the small screen to the big screen. While there are a few such stories that endure and make for great films, more often than not, they have trouble translating to major motion picture. Without knowing anything about To Write Love On Her Arms beforehand, I was drawn to the film simply by Kat Dennings’s starring role in the film; but the biopic drama is one of the more problematically-rendered big-screen films about battling addiction. As much as I might have wanted To Write Love On Her Arms to be an amazing experience I could eagerly recommend to Kat Dennings fans and moviegoers in general, the film transitions from imaginative and unsettling to heavyhanded, predictable and strangely dull.

To Write Love On Her Arms is the story of Renee Yohe, who is a real person; it is worth noting right at the outset that I know nothing of the actual person upon whom To Write Love On Her Arms is based. This is strictly a review of the film To Write Love On Her Arms. Issues with character and plot all are centered strictly upon the film versions of these characters and one has to assume some of the events (or at least names) are fictionalized to protect those who would not give clearance for their parts in the story to be presented on screen. So, before hashing out the plot, the fundamental problems with To Write Love On Her Arms are the lack of originality and a murky initiating incident.

Renee Yohe is an outsider at her high school where she, Dylan and Jessie bond and pretty much stand alone apart from the rest of their classmates. Renee is close with her mother and has an imagination that is intense. But in high school, she abruptly begins cutting herself, getting into drugs and alcohol and hanging off the arms of many different boys and men. After doing coke at a party, she is pulled into a back room and raped and after cutting pretty heavily, she calls upon Dylan and Jessie to help her out. Dylan takes his boss’s car to rescue Renee and together they head back to try to get Renee into rehab. Dylan’s boss, McKenna, is an ex-addict who is in recovery and is now a manager of musical groups. When rehab will not take Renee in, because she has not been sober and has not been cut-free for five days, McKenna takes Renee in to get her sober.

At McKenna’s house, Renee starts to get clean and she re-bonds with Dylan and Jessie. She also meets Jamie Tworkowski, who becomes intrigued by her story. Despite setbacks like going to a concert which leads Renee to cut again (largely because Jessie leaps to the conclusion that she used while separated from them), Renee manages to get clean. Six months after she first got admitted to rehab, Jamie has built an online community around Renee’s story and trying to help those who suffer from similar addictions. Out of the shelter of rehab, Renee finds herself suddenly a celebrity of sorts thanks to Jamie’s site and charity, To Write Love On Her Arms. She is overwhelmed, but struggles with her sobriety and her desire to help others who suffer from issues similar to herself.

Immediately, one of the most serious issues with To Write Love On Her Arms is the lack of a clear, strong, initiating incident to make the protagonist one with whom audiences can empathize. Yes, writers Kate King Lynch and Nathan Frankowski get around to it, but given that the first twenty minutes of To Write Love On Her Arms feature Renee undergoing dramatic physical changes, cutting, obvious drug addiction and a rape, the fairly simple exposition that comes at the halfway point is incredibly unsatisfying. But for almost half the film, the best explanation viewers have for the self-degradation of the protagonist is simply a vague sense of depression and the death of Jessie’s mother affecting her at a young age. Given how death of a friend’s family member is hardly considered a traumatic event, this is an unsatisfying motivation from a narrative perspective.

To Write Love On Her Arms starts off well-enough and strong enough. Director Nathan Franowski uses visual stylings for the young, imaginative, version of Renee that are instantly reminiscent of Across The Universe (reviewed here!). But the film quickly loses its magic and the harsh reality of the world is mirrored in the direction; To Write Love On Her Arms becomes a stark, dark, dank film that is as formulaic as any afterschool special. To Write Love On Her Arms suffers because its protagonist might be famous and a celebrity within the sobriety social circle in Florida and on the internet, but her story is incredibly typical and the lack of originality makes for a fairly unsatisfying film. To Write Love On Her Arms is just a more visually-graphic, modernized The Lost Weekend (reviewed here!).

What To Write Love On Her Arms has is a valuable message and pretty wonderful acting. Despite seeming like a PSA for the charity To Write Love On Her Arms, the acting is of a decent caliber. Actress Kat Dennings who made the transition effectively from indie movie star to mainstream celebrity with Two Broke Girls (season one is reviewed here!) is amazing as Renee Yohe. Dennings does snarky wonderfully, but the role of Yohe does not allow her any of her trademark sass. Instead, she is pale, listless and difficult-to-watch as the depressed, addicted, deeply-pained protagonist. This is new cinematic territory for Dennings and she plays the role with amazing depth and a disturbing proficiency.

Equally good are the supporting cast, at least for what they are allowed to do. Chad Michael Murray is easy to write off for those of us who only knew him from the first season of Gilmore Girls (reviewed here!) or his teenager-marketed soap opera One Tree Hill, but in To Write Love On Her Arms he is good. While his part of Jamie is pretty simple (he basically facilitates the story without giving any significant backstory himself), Murray plays it well and he plays off Rupert Friend’s McKenna in a way that makes it completely credible that the two characters are old friends. Rupert Friend is good as McKenna, though he telegraphs his performance to make his character’s plot-focused relapse instantaneously predictable.

One of the pleasant surprises on the performance front is Mark Saul. Saul performs a cover of the Coldplay song “The Scientist” and his voice is wonderful. Saul makes Dylan a decent supporting character and with Juliana Harkavy, the pair support Dennings’s Renee Yohee enough to make the character have a believable support network.

But To Write Love On Her Arms is otherwise unremarkable. The direction starts interesting and fades ridiculously fast; the characters and plot are predictable and generic. The result is a movie with good performances that is generally unwatchable.

For other films currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Seventh Son
Inherent Vice
Still Alice
The Interview
The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
Horrible Bosses 2
10,000 Days
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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