Tribeca 2013: ‘Bottled Up’ mixes humor and drama to good effect

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Bottled Up movie

Bottled Up
USA, 2013
Written and directed by Enid Zentelis

There are a great many regions in America for which prescription drug addiction is no joke. In fact, a documentary playing at the Tribeca Film Festival this year, Oxyana, addresses how prescription drugs are devastating West Virginia, and there are precious few laughs to be found there. However, that is not the approach taken by Enid Zentelis’ Tribeca film Bottled Up, which is not quite a comedy but mixes in a fair amount of laughs with the addiction drama that it turns upon.

Faye (Melissa Leo) has a decent life going in a small town in upstate New York. She runs her little “Mailboxes ’N’ Thangs” – where the “Thangs” apparently include coffee, donuts, and piercings – and she still owns the house which has run in her family for generations. The town’s local environmental activist (Josh Hamilton) might even have a crush on her. But it’s all going to pieces because of her daughter Sylvie (Marin Ireland), who has an addiction to pain medication that is rapidly becoming too intense to control.

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Zentelis also wrote the script, which brings humor into Faye’s life at odd moments. In one scene, Hamilton’s character breaks his hand in a scene which borders upon slapstick; by the time he’s gotten home from the hospital, Sylvie has possibly overdosed and the slapstick is gone altogether. There’s no question that the humor in this film is jarring at first, as it has been established in the film’s very first scene that Sylvie is out of control and already stealing from her mother to feed the monkey on her back.

Yet the apparently random humor plays an important role in humanizing Faye and Sylvie. It would be all too easy for Sylvie to be a monster, especially as the film goes on and she drops all pretense to needing the drugs for pain. Likewise it would be all too easy for Faye to be a cowering pushover, a slave to her daughter’s will. The humor in the movie makes them seem like they would be characters in a quirky little small-town comedy if not for the specter of addiction, and allows the audience to see them as they are: Sylvie is no less of a monster than addiction can make of anyone, and Faye is just trying to help her daughter to be happy.

Melissa Leo is fantastic here.  The key to her performance is low self-esteem: Sylvie’s addiction has so dominated Faye’s life that Faye’s sense of self-worth has been all but obliterated. She knows that she is breaking the law and enabling her daughter’s disease, but in her mind it’s the only important thing she can do for the only family that she has left. Her very best scenes are not comedic, but are the dramatic scenes where she is longing to claim just a tiny bit of joy for herself.

Movies like Oxyana or Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream will deliver the pain of addiction through the crushing agony that is felt by the addicts on-screen. That’s surely a valid approach, but there should always be room for movies which attack the problem in the quirky, optimistic way that Bottled Up does, too. This is the lesson that Zentelis is trying to deliver: each of these characters needs to love themselves enough to be happy and hopeful, even in the face of the ways in which the world beats the optimism out of them. It is a message which is ultimately charming and enjoyable.

-Mark Young

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