Yellow: Toronto Review

Weird moments abound in a film whose depiction of mental illness mixes drama with comedy.

Nick Cassavetes leaves multiplex romance behind in an out-there look at a woman in distress.

TORONTO — Nick Cassavetes takes an unsettling trip into a troubled woman's mind in Yellow, an often funny character study full of scenes that left-turn into wild expressionism. A far cry from his mainstream-friendly films like The Notebook, the picture makes up for potentially alienating moments by stockpiling sensationalist ingredients like sex, drugs and family members who morph into farm animals at the dinner table.

Heather Wahlquist stars as Mary Holmes, a substitute schoolteacher addicted to pain meds. (Wahlquist and Cassavetes, who were once a couple but no longer are, co-wrote the film.) When she's not sneaking out to her car to wash some pills down with an airline-sized bottle of whiskey, Mary's spacing out in quasi-hallucinations: a rainstorm floods her classroom; a snippy interaction in the teacher's lounge turns into an operetta, complete with a chorus of "Fuck You!"

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Fired after some illicit janitor's-closet sex with a dad on Parents' Night (fallout with the school's principal, in which the action becomes a stage play and Mary forgets her lines, is the best ofYellow's altered-state moments), Mary heads home to Oklahoma to regroup. There, we piece together some of the family trauma that has contributed to her current state: Much of it traces back to Mary's incestuous relationship with half-brother Nowell (Brendan Sexton), an affair her mother (Melanie Griffith) refuses to acknowledge despite the havoc it wreaked on the rest of the family.

Neither method of coping -- denial or chemically-induced avoidance -- seems satisfactory, but Yellow clearly sympathizes with Mary over those (including family members played by Gena Rowlands and Lucy Punch) who've spent years treating the affair like the end of the world.

The single point of sanity in the occasionally shrill action is a psychologist (David Morse) Mary visits. From the start, the generic furnishings in his office suggest this refuge may be imaginary; as things progress, he seems to be available whenever she needs him. Yellow isn't the kind of film that would end with Mary's tidy discovery that she's been carrying the solutions to her problems in her head all along -- if anything, it points her in the direction of her next trainwreck. But it does suggest those problems have more to do with the rest of the world, its prejudices and judgments, than with any flaw in Mary herself.

Production Company: Medient

Cast: Heather Wahlquist, Sienna Miller, Melanie Griffith, Gena Rowlands, Lucy Punch, Riley Keough, Max Thieriot, Daveigh Chase, David Morse, Ray Liotta, Brendan Sexton, Ethan Suplee

Director: Nick Cassavetes

Screenwriter: Nick Cassavetes, Heather Wahlquist

Producers: Manu Kumaran, Chris Hanley, Jordan Gertner, Chuck Pacheco

Executive producers: Pankaj Rajani, Chad Burris, Ky Chaffin, Pankaj Kapoor, Steve Markoff, Bruce McNall, John P Flanagan, Jai Stephan, Tim Peternel, Izabella Miko, Horatio C. Kemeny, Derrek Lee, Jiri Hudler, Erick Geisler

Director of photography: Jeff Cutter

Production designer: Patricio Farell

Music: Aaron Zigman

Costume designer: Bonnie Stauch

Editor: Jim Flynn

Sales: ICM

No rating, 109 minutes