I'm sad to say that thus far, Clean has been the most disappointing SIFF film I've seen this year. I had no emotional connection to this film at all -- in fact, I was just plain bored.
Emily Wang (Maggie Cheung) is a struggling rock singer with a drug addiction whose husband dies of an overdose, sending her to prison for possession for 6 months. Their child Jay lives with his grandparents (Nick Nolte and Martha Henry) due to Emily's inability to take care of him. After she's released, her father"n-law strikes a deal with her: she must stay away from her son -- unless she's willing to turn her life around. You would think that a film about a woman trying to regain her hold on life by kicking a heroin habit so she can get custody of her child would be gripping, or at least interesting. Alas, neither of those statements can be applied.
There was virtually no character development for anyone, not even for the main character. Because of this, I didn't really care what happened to anyone in the film. Also, no "struggle" was ever really evident. I was expecting a lot of ups and downs to occur during Emily's journey to kick her habit and get her son back, but it was just completely flat and uninteresting. I was waiting for the entire length of the film for something (anything!) to happen, and it never did.
It seemed like several situations presented themselves that could have added dramatic tension to the story (i.e. finding her dealer's dead body, encounters with a younger female admirer, even conflict with her husband's other lover), but the director and screenwriter (Oliver Assayas) skipped over them entirely. Even at the moment when there should be a battle for Jay's custody, there just is none. The only reason it earned 2 stars from me was because I thought Maggie Cheung made the most of the dialogue and story that was given to her. Nolte appeared to be "phoning in" his performance, and the grandparent's story was so disconnected from Emily's that I wasn't even sure it was part of the same film.
I left this film feeling like I hadn't watched anything; normally I'm playing the movie back through my mind and thinking about how certain scenes made me feel, but I was just entirely empty. The quiet and scattered applause from the audience seemed to indicate that many others had the same experience.