I’d say my opinion of Clean is higher than the degree to which I enjoyed watching it.
An odd twist to the movie is that it takes place in part in the United States, Canada, England, and France, and the characters speak the appropriate language in each location. So roughly half the movie takes place in French with subtitles.
It’s about a semi-celebrity (girlfriend of a fading musician of some repute, and apparently a former somebody at a lower level in the music industry herself) junkie trying to go straight after her boyfriend dies of a drug overdose. Her main motive for getting off drugs is that she believes it’s necessary in order for her to have any chance of getting her young son back in her life. (They had dumped the boy on the father’s parents even before his overdose.)
Some of the acting is wooden early on, but then it hits a groove and it feels pretty real. The lead character is convincing, but actually I was most drawn in by the grandparents (Nick Nolte especially), and also by the little boy when he finally played a more significant role toward the end of the film.
There are one or two things about the story that I found borderline in terms of credibility, but otherwise I didn’t think it required as much of a suspension of disbelief as most movies, even most indie movies that don’t follow mainstream Hollywood conventions.
On at least a couple of occasions I got confused about a character or a scene, but mostly this isn’t one of those overly artsy movies that’s purposely obscure.
So it’s a reasonably well-done, reasonably intelligent, reasonably realistic movie. Yet I experienced it as a downer that only held my interest to a modest degree.
I think a lot of it’s just that for the most part I don’t like that world and the way those people live, and I had trouble warming up to the main character and rooting for her.
It’s an unappealing version of a “fast track” lifestyle—bars with live bands that occasionally achieve some modest degree of fame, hustlers on the fringes of the music business, record company weasels, drug dealers, etc. It’s not the truly famous “beautiful people” crowd, it’s not the youngest, hippest, hottest looking twenty-something clubbers; it’s just kind of an unpleasant bunch of thirty-somethings who aren’t as glamorous or as successful or as attractive or as interesting as they think they are or as perhaps they once were. Many are heavily into drugs, up to and including heroin, and the rest either were hooked in the past or are very used to dealing with people who are. So there’s a general world-weariness about them, a degree of tolerance—or at least expectation—of irresponsibility given the lowered standards they’ve gotten used to.
It just seems like a world where people kind of drag each other down. (Is “codependence” the jargony term used for that now? Where you gravitate toward a partner or social crowd that shares your vices or worse, so you don’t have to feel judged, and then you all provide negative role models for each other? I’m not sure of the lingo.)
(And speaking of drugs, never mind the heroin, and all the drinking, the number one abused drug in this movie is nicotine. It’s one of those movies where all the cool, troubled, edgy people smoke like chimneys.)
I really didn’t want to spend this time in that world. Maybe that’s why it was refreshing in a way when the focus was on Nick Nolte and his wife and their grandchild. Most of their scenes ain’t exactly cheerful stuff either, but somehow I was better able to get into that downer material than the downer material of the junkies, and ex-junkies, and may-or-may-not-still-be junkies, and very-likely-will-in-the-future-again-be junkies.
Mostly the characters are uncommunicative about emotion, tend to talk around things, engage in unpleasant verbal ego battles, etc., which makes it harder to connect with them. As I say, I didn’t find the main character herself very sympathetic, except just in kind of a generic way that even someone whose screwed up life is mostly her own fault warrants some degree of sympathy when they’re in pain. So I won’t say I didn’t feel anything for her. And then in the second half of the film when she does open up more, does admit more weakness and vulnerability, does have moments of honesty, I warmed up to her to a corresponding, limited, degree.
I mean, in a way I was dubious about the whole thing about wanting to re-establish a relationship with her son. I thought it was iffy that she really did care more about that than about her drugs and the lifestyle she was used to. It felt like more of an abstraction, like she sensed that you’re supposed to have something like that as a goal if you’re to get off drugs—since a mother “obviously” loves her child and should be with him—than like a genuine attachment to him as an individual. And I thought it was even more doubtful that it would be a good thing for her to regain a major role in her son’s life. (I say this more as description than criticism of the movie. I think the movie is intentionally, and realistically, ambiguous about these things, to its credit. It doesn’t—I don’t believe—expect the audience to accept in some simplistic way that the love of her son enables her to turn her life around.)
And again, when she shows more emotion and seems more human—and certainly when you finally see her and her son together, and you see her attempts to be honest with him—then the love is somewhat more believable, and you can maybe buy that she really is doing her best, because this relationship really is a big deal to her.
Overall, objectively I see substantially more than not to admire about Clean, but subjectively it only partly won me over toward the end, and I can’t say I enjoyed watching it all that much.