Down to the Bone (2004): Debra Granik Sundance Film, with Towering Performance from Vera Farmiga

Sundance Film Festival 2004–Winner of two awards at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, for director Debra Granik and a Special Jury Prize for actress Vera Farmiga, “Down to the Bone” is a low-budget, digital-video feature about the arduous process of drug rehab as experienced by a working class mother.

Vera Farmiga gives an astounding performance as Irene, the lower-class mom who struggles to keep her marriage together and raise two young sons, while keeping her cocaine addiction a secret. After a series of nearly fatal mishaps, and finally hoping to make a change in her life, Irene decides to check herself into a rehab center. She knows that kicking the habit would be tough, but the experience proves even more difficult than she could have anticipated.

At the center, Irene meets and falls in love with a fellow reformed addict, Bob (Hugh Dillon), who works as a male nurse. Since she is married, Irene makes all efforts to keep the illicit affair clandestine, until she’s caught off guard by one of her kids. What makes the movie interesting is that Irene and Bob’s stories are complicated and full of paradoxes.

The narrative follows with extreme restraint as Irene goes through drug busts, counseling sessions, group therapy, and honest and dishonest conversations with her husband. And director Granik shows humor too. Reproached by her supermarket boss for a slower pace and less than graceful attitude toward her customers, Irene fires back, “When I was high, I was fast, and now that I’m clean, I’m slow.”

The tale is excellent at conveying how frail and vulnerable people who go through rehab are. Indeed, when one of the couple falls into a relapse with the addiction, their commitment to staying cleanand to each otheris completely shattered.

Both characters hit bottom and do things, consciously and subconsciously, that they know they would regret and would also hurt those around them. Highly aware of her predicament, Irene in particular knows that she must fight her way to a better placeat a price. The characters’ epiphanies are not tidy, and there’s no happy or sweeping resolution. While there’s movement toward redemption, it’s not neat or pat; the film just ends.

Aptly titled, “Down to the Bone” is based on Granik’s 1997 short film, “Snake Feed,” which won the Sundance Film Festival Short Award in 1998. In its current shape, the film is not only ultra-modest but also under-populated. In addition to Irene’s husband, Steve (Clint Jordan), there’s only one other character, Lucy (Caridad De La Luz), Irene’s co-worker in cleaning houses.

Granick uses her central performers and working class locale of Upstate New York to good effect. Downbeat and realistic, the script is remarkable for avoiding clichs about drug-addiction and rehabilitation and for maintaining a matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic approach. Neither the characters nor the actors who plays them ask for sympathy from the audience, just greater sensitivity to a subject that so far has received mostly sensationalistic Movie-of-the-Week treatment.

Adopting a semi-documentary style, this beautifully wrought film accurately and authentically explores the wrenching road to recovery, without ever resorting to histrionics. It’s hard to tell whether the flags shown at the beginning of the film are meant to reflect the post 9/11 mood of run-down working class-America, or whether they are used as an ironic backdrop for a truly downbeat story.

The origins of the film go back to Granik’s meeting with Corinne Stralka, a woman who worked as housekeeper at an inn in Upstate New York, where Granik was shooting a documentary. After this chance meeting, Granik began videotaping Corinne and her family, thinking her work would result in a cinema verite documentary.

In “Snake Feed,” the short that preceded the feature-length movie, Corinne, her kids, and her partner, Rich Lieske, played themselves. After making the short, Granik continued to videotape and interview her subjects for several years before deciding to try her hand at a feature.

“Down to the Bone” is distributed by a new entrepreneurial company, Laemmle/Zeller Films that should be commended for showing low-budget indies with limited commercial appeal.