“To Write Love on Her Arms.” It’s a cause, vividly illustrated by its name, a turn of phrase so poetic that it’s no wonder a big segment of the music industry embraced it as a cause celebre a few years back.
It’s also a biography, and that’s how it makes its way to the screen. “To Write Love on Her Arms” is about Renee Yohe, a teen whose troubled psyche, substance abuse and self-injury inspired an online support system for those like her — especially those so troubled they repeatedly cut themselves.
And if you think all Kat Dennings is good for is lame sitcom one-liners, you are in for a shock.
Dennings plays Yohe — a music-obsessed Florida teen when her troubles began — with a coy confidence that contradicts all her instincts to swing-for-the-cute.
Pale and dark, hiding behind her hoodie and her headphones, Renee at least has a support system (ably played by Juliana Harkavy and Mark Saul). But a support system’s only supportive when they’re around, and Renee abandoned them for cocaine, ecstasy, the works.
A struggling music producer/band manager, David McKenna (Rupert Friend of “Young Victoria”) runs into Renee at a twelve step meeting she refuses to attend. And when he and her friends cannot get her into rehab, he takes them all in for the five days needed to sober her up enough to qualify. Chad Michael Murray plays Jamie Tworkowski, a friend of McKenna’s who saw Renee’s story as inspiring, who coined the title phrase and turned it and her into a movement.
Dennings makes Renee charismatic enough for people to care, a barely repentent “coozer,” lover of cocaine and booze.
“I made that up. D’you LIKE it?”
Friend is more subtle, making McKenna a guarded savior, somebody with his own demons. Murray, of TV’s “One Tree Hill” and “Chosen,” gives Tworkowski a heart-on-his-sleeve quality. On seeing Renee’s slashed up arm for the first time — “My God, who DOES that?”
The film’s refusal to judge Yohe and others’ demons extends, somewhat, to some of the villains of this world. Corbin Bleu makes a disarmingly charming addict, and J. LaRose an absolutely chilling dealer who expects to be paid, by any means necessary. “High School Musical” veteran Bleu turns a surreally depressing Daytona Beach drug den into a celebration when he sings a most pointed, revealing version of J.J. Cale’s addictive anthem “Cocaine.”
Director Nathan Frankowski, best remembered for the should-be-forgotten creationist documentary “Expelled,” renders this more-true-than-factual story as a romantic fantasy, with Renee’s favorite musicians bursting into her flashbacks, her dreams and (in the case of singer Rachael Yamagata), her recovery. Fanciful animation colors Renee’s childhood and illustrates her demons, and concert and club scenes beautifully put her into the world she escapes to — the music of Paper Route, Flint Eastwood and others.
The story’s arc is a trifle too familiar to sustain a two hour movie, even one as beautifully shot (by Stephen Campbell) and cut (by Gordon Grinberg) as this one. And the finale of this jinxed production — it was filmed years ago, re-edited, set for release only to tumble into Sony’s online hacking disaster last Christmas — sermonizes in a way more suited to direct-to-video evangelizing than a feature film.
But Renee Yohe’s story is rendered in tones, colors and images almost as lovely as the lyrical words that started it all — “To Write Love on Her Arms.”
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for mature thematic content involving addiction and disturbing behavior throughout, and for brief language
Cast: Kat Dennings, Rupert Friend, Chad Michael Murray
Credits: Directed by Nathan Frankowski, script by Kate King Lynch. A Sony release.
Running time: 1:58