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To Write Love on Her Arms

Sony Pictures // PG-13 // March 3, 2015
List Price: $26.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 6, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The struggles of addiction, recovery, and depression are the kinds of journeys that art is made to express: personal, overwhelming experiences that those of us who have not been down those roads can probably never fully understand. At the same time, the art produced by many people who have overcome those kinds of demons tends to be so personal and raw, so clearly from the most earnest parts of a person, that other people become uncomfortable engaging with it honestly, as if the artist were asking people to grab hold of a flailing power line. The inclination of the artists is to emphasize the depth of the darkness that they experienced, because to them their spiral is meaningful, but it can be hard not to react to that as if it were emotionally manipulative melodrama (which sometimes it is, having lost something in the journey from reality to the page or screen).

To Write Love On Her Arms is a surprising movie: one that not only navigates that journey between honesty and sentimentality more successfully than most, but one that does so after getting off on the wrong foot. It's rare that a movie so thoroughly mismanages its first twenty minutes and then manages to recover, especially given its mistakes are rooted in director Nathan Frankowski and screenwriter Kate King Lynch's vision for what made their film special. It is also a true story, based on the life of Renee Yohe, a young woman whose battle with drugs and bipolar disorder formed the basis for a blog post by Jamie Tworkowski, which went viral and lead to the launch of a non-profit organization for troubled youths, also called To Write Love On Her Arms. It's impressive enough that the film doesn't just come off like a commercial (albeit for a valuable and worthwhile service), but the film also carefully navigates a story that never feels the need to amp up its protagonist's actual struggles for the sake of drama.

Kat Dennings plays Renee Yohe, a young woman who slips into a fantasy world whenever she hears music. She has medication to treat her bipolar disorder, but she refuses to take them, as the escape serves as a bit of a comfort. Renee's high school experience seems pretty normal until she attends a Halloween party with her close friends Dylan (Mark Saul) and Jessie (Juliana Harkavy), and ends up a little too drunk and her visions start to take over. After fighting a bit with Jessie, she catches a ride home with Sean (Will Peltz), who rapes her. From there, Renee falls into a two-year spiral of drug addictions, including cocaine. At the end of it, having finally escaped a particularly abusive relationship, she calls Dylan and Jessie, who happen to be on their way to a rehab center, where Dylan's boss, music producer David McKenna (Rupert Friend), is giving a speech about his alcoholism. It's just enough for Renee to hit rock bottom and want help, but McKenna's treatment facility won't take her unless she's been clean for five days. The group shack up in McKenna's loft, along with McKenna's friend Jamie Tworkowski, and focus on helping Renee get clean.

The big idea of the movie is to visualize Renee's fantasies, which are essentially full-blown musical numbers, filled with CG plants growing and crowds of high schoolers clapping or singing along. It's certainly stylish, but stylish feels wrong-headed. Should we, as viewers, want to keep returning to this fantasy world that may have contributed to Renee's current situation? Even if the movie were to get away with that, viewing it as a piece of filmmaking, it feels kind of gross in another way, like an audition to direct music videos growing on the story of a real person who struggled with addiction. Most of these fantasy sequences are built into the first twenty minutes of the movie, when Renee spends most of her time in her imagination. There is probably a way to make these sequences work -- at least one, when Dylan sings a song at an open mic for Renee, does actually work -- but they're a distraction from the human story at the movie's center.

Thankfully, after devoting a good chunk of time to these fantasies, the movie does actually settle down into that human story. When we hear about addiction stories, we get a stereotypical picture in our head, of big mistakes, shouting matches, and self-reckoning. Renee's story is, interestingly enough, not so turbulent, yet still dramatic. Lynch's screenplay deftly illustrates the need for companionship in the journey and how the struggle to stay clean can manifest itself in tiny aggressions, such as the complete lack of faith Jessie has when Renee has only been away for five minutes, or Renee's parents' refusal to be involved for the sake of their other daughter. The film also doesn't shy away from the awkwardness and overwhelming experience it must have been for Yohe to become a celebrity while in rehab thanks to something someone else wrote about her life; when she visits the To Write Love On Her Arms offices after leaving, the cries of help on the screen seem like an imposition on her for having such an overwhelming network of support. Dennings is very good, matching the screenplay's balanced tone with an even-handed performance that conveys big emotions in small ways, and she has excellent chemistry with Rupert Friend as McKenna, who seems to worry about assisting in Renee's recovery due to his uncertainty about his own. It's only a shame the filmmakers felt computer graphics served parts of the story better than more of their scenes together.

To Write Love On Her Arms follows the modern "grid" principle of cover art design, with Kat Dennings and other characters captured in little boxes. The logo for the organization doubles, unsurprisingly, as the logo for the movie, and is displayed prominently to attract the attention of those already familiar with TWLOHA. The single-disc release comes in an eco-friendly DVD case, and there is no insert. The packaging also notes that a portion of the proceeds from the DVD sales, will, of course, go to the organization itself.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen, To Write Love On Her Arms fares better than a number of DVD-only Sony releases as of late. Many of those releases have been hampered with banding, crush, aliasing, and other issues, but in this case, the picture appears relatively strong and stable, even in dark scenes. The occasional blown-out white area or anemic color appears to be part of the original photography, and not an issue with the DVD. A Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack shines more during the movie's more visually adventurous segments near the beginning, almost all of which are set to music. Dialogue and other environmental effects are strong, and the film is convincing if not necessarily enveloping. A ridiculous amount of alternate audio and subtitle options are also included: Parisian French, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai tracks, all in 5.1, plus English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing and English, French, Chinese, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, and Thai subtitles.

The Extras
"To Write Love On Her Arms: The Making of the Movie" (26:20), or "Making of the Movie: From Story to Screen" if you go by the packaging, is a general making-of featurette covering all bases of production, from the translation of the true events into the movie, the chemistry of the cast, the movie's stylistic flourishes, and of course, the message everyone involved hopes the movie will have. Genial, with plenty of film clips (although, generally only as a backdrop for the interviews, which is good). A separate featurette, "To Write Love On Her Arms: The Music in the Movie" (6:23) focuses on, well, the music in the movie, and the way the music informs the film's depiction of Renee Yohe as a character.

A number of the featurettes may have been released online. "To Write Love On Her Arms: First Look" (3:13) is a compressed, more explanatory version of the larger featurette. These are followed by a series of video blogs from some of the movie's subjects, including Jamie Tworkowski, Travie McCoy, Rachael Yamagata, and of course, Renee Yohe (who does actually resemble Kat Dennings). Finally, Character Profiles (11:59) has the cast talking about what they wanted to bring to their portrayal of these real people.

The disc wraps up with an extensive collection of deleted scenes (19:44). Most of these are extensions of scenes already in the movie, and not that interesting, but there are some additional beats with Renee's parents, and more of Rupert Friend. At least one scene probably should've stayed in the final cut: the parting scene between Jamie and Renee that would've more fully conveyed her chemistry with him.

Trailers for The Intruders, The Song, The Remaining, What If, When the Game Stands Tall, and To Save a Life play before the main menu. No trailer for To Write Love On Her Arms is included.

Once To Write Love On Her Arms finally lets the characters have center stage, it's pretty good, deftly avoiding the kind of cliches ones expects to see in a recovery story. Dennings and Friend turn in excellent performances. Recommended.

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