There are plenty of films about people with crippling mental illness, but there are far fewer that tell the story through the over-medicated perspective of the afflicted. “Yellow” is the closest that schlock master Nick Cassavetes (“The Notebook”, “My Sister’s Keeper”) has gotten to emulating the experimental style associated with his father’s legacy. I’m still not 100% sure I liked “Yellow,” but it sure did give me a lot to think about, and to me, that makes it time well spent.
The script is co-written by Cassavetes and the film’s lead actress, Heather Wahlquist. Love it or hate it, you should make time for pie and coffee afterward, because you will need to discuss what you just witnessed. It begins, as do many dramas, in a therapist’s office. Protagonist Mary Holmes confesses that she is numb to the world. Worse yet, she has absolutely no desire to repair her affliction.
“I don’t even care that I can’t feel anything. I can’t even feel that.”
And with that, we join her story. Or, what little story there is. Mary is a substitute teacher at an elementary school who keeps her demons at bay with 30 painkillers a day and a steady stream of alcohol to wash it down. You can’t call her self-destructive because that would imply that she’s still making some sort of effort. The only thing she feels responsible for is stuffing her mouth with pharmaceuticals. The rest of her life just happens to her. It would be a pretty boring film if we weren’t granted an all-access pass to her thought process, which frequently involves hallucinations in the form of musical numbers and animation.
Some of the hallucinations play as emotional shorthand, but it seems more a coincidence than it is laziness. Mary is no Rhodes scholar, so it makes sense that her inner monologue would be a little transparent. What isn’t transparent, at least not immediately, is what exactly happened to this woman to make her this way. Her affliction is clearly much more than a chemical addiction. She has some serious pain that she is trying to suppress and apparently, at this point, it takes an awful lot of little yellow friends to make that happen.
After Mary is busted making sexy time with a dad in a utility closet during Parent’s Night, she decides it’s time to skip town and start over. But then she makes the worst mistake that anyone could ever make when seeking a fresh start – she goes home to her family. It soon becomes clear that Mary is actually the most normal member of a large clan of batshit Oklahomans.
As the puzzle pieces of Mary’s past fall into place, it becomes clear that there can be no redemption for her. Mary isn’t playing the victim. She doesn’t want anyone to try to help her and she doesn’t want sympathy. She’s resigned herself to her (almost literally) waking nightmare of a life. Parts of it are kind of fun but most of it is horrifying and inescapable. Even if were an option, she would never want out. She’s decided that her life is forfeit and she’s just biding her time until it’s over. Why not use that time to trip balls?
“Yellow” isn’t exactly a pioneering film. But Cassavetes borrows from some of the greats, including Michel Gondry, David Lynch and even a bit of Fosse. There’s also a hint of Holden Caulfield in Mary, who loves children and disdains adults in equal measure, but is nowhere near stable enough to be responsible for another life. The f****d-up sexpot is something I would like to see less of in film, but at least “Yellow” makes attempts at rounding out the character and giving her more motivation than merely arrested development and low self-esteem. I also commend Cassavetes and Wahlquist for omitting a love interest plotline. That’s a hell of a lot of restraint from the guy who made one of the most abysmal (yet, bafflingly, most beloved) romance films of all time.