Debra Granik develops empathy toward the working class wife and mother trying to overcome a coke addiction in "Down to the Bone," without becoming too sentimental. Artistic success may lack the drama that hungry distribs are looking for, but pic warrants serious and loving care from handlers who can guide it through the market.

Debra Granik develops empathy toward the working class wife and mother trying to overcome a coke addiction in “Down to the Bone,” without becoming too sentimental. First-time feature director’s disciplined objectivity is coupled with humanism in this collaboration with a gifted cast and cinematographer. The artistic success, though, may be a bit too cool and lack the drama that hungry distribs are looking for, but pic nevertheless warrants serious and loving care from handlers who can guide it through the market.

The pent-up emotions and disappointments simmering inside Irene are expressed with magnificent quietude by Vera Farmiga(“Love in the Time of Money,” “Dummy”), who finally gets a role that shows her talent. Farmiga’s work and the film as a whole show keen intelligence, fearsome commitment and an admirable disregard for flashiness.

Michael McDonough’s digital lensing is surpassingly beautiful and should finally silence skeptics of the cinematic capacity (or limits) of digital video. McDonough also shot Granik’s short, “Snake Feed,” from which “Down to the Bone’s” story is derived. Lenser achieves crystalline resolution on the bigscreen with fairly modest means, abetted by a high-def transfer.

Irene juggles getting her kids (Jasper Moon Daniels, Taylor Foxhall) ready for trick-or-treating, working as a supermarket checkout clerk and mulling over minor home improvement decisions with husband Steve (Clint Jordan). Even as she tends to her boys, Irene briefly slips into the bathroom to quickly snort some coke.

Irene checks herself into a rehab clinic, where Bob (Hugh Dillon), a male nurse she recently met during Halloween, assists doling out methadone. She makes friends with Lucy (Caridad “La Bruja” De La Luz), whose gruff exterior hides a good heart. Clinic scenes, as well as later ones in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, are authentic, unlike similar scenes in “28 Days.”

Rather than stick with the rehab program, Irene returns home, staying sober and trying to mend matters with an absurdly elaborate Thanksgiving dinner. Another downhill slide begins when she explains to her bosses that she can no longer be as speedy at checkout as when she was high all the time.

Open ending wraps on a sad, reflective and highly memorable moment.

Dillon’s perf as a man who only seems to have it together is marvelous in every detail, and Jordan and De La Luz are completely believable. Cuteness isn’t part of the agenda with kid thesps Daniels and Foxhall, and this becomes crucial to the film’s genuineness.

Production is a model of what can be done on a tiny budget, and makes the most of chilly upstate New York conditions. Minimalist soundtrack, including brief selections from a handful of indie bands, ideally suits a film that doesn’t depend on pressing emotional buttons.

Down to the Bone

Production

A Down to the Bone Prods. presentation. Produced by Susan Leber, Anne Rosellini. Directed by Debra Granik. Screenplay, Granik, Richard Lieske.

Crew

Camera (Post Works color, DV-to-high definition video, digital projection), Michael McDonough; editor, Malcolm Jamieson; music, Slug , Jackie O Motherfucker, East River Pipe, Low; music supervisor, Linda Kennedy; production designer, Mark White; costume designer, Nancy Brous; sound, James Demer; supervising sound editor, Lewis Goldstein; casting, Ellen Parks. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 18, 2004. Running time: 101 MIN.

With

Irene - Vera Farmiga Bob - Hugh Dillon Steve - Clint Jordan Lucy - Caridad "La Bruja" De La Luz Ben - Jasper Moon Daniels Jason - Taylor Foxhall
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