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Florida Film Festival: Yellow

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Anyone going into Yellow expecting something like The Notebook, director Nick Cassavetes' most famous effort, will no doubt be disappointed and quite possibly horrified. It is nothing like his earlier work, though it hues closest to his film Alpha Dog. It is more akin to the work of his late father John Cassavetes. This is a love it or hate it kind of movie; it is crude, hallucinatory, extremely creative, and both deeply disturbing and deeply funny, sometimes in the very same scene.

Heather Wahlquist (who also co-wrote the script with her husband Cassavetes) stars as Mary, a substitute teacher at a Los Angeles elementary school. She seems to love her job and the kids she teaches. It quickly becomes evident that something is awry, and not just because of her sessions with a psychologist (David Morse) that hint at a sociopathic nature. She clearly has problems with both drugs and promiscuity. Her days are peppered with elaborate fantasies, as when the other teachers break into a operatic number while in the lounge, and a confrontation with the principal turns into a stage play, complete with proscenium and audience, in which Mary can't remember her lines. For reasons that I dare not spoil, she heads home to Oklahoma and her dysfunctional family, including her clueless mother (Melanie Griffith) and actively hostile grandmother (Gena Rowlands).

This is Heather Wahlquist's first lead after a number of supporting roles, and to say she carries the film is an understatement; she's on screen for nearly every frame of the movie. It is quite a performance, with Wahlquist slowly peeling away layers from her character until a pivotal scene when her damaged soul is laid bare for the audience. Mary is a narcissist, and probably a nymphomaniac and a nutcase, but the character is always complex and never a caricature. She is also a very unreliable protagonist, as we are not sure what is real and what is her own fantasy/psychosis from one moment to the next. An Oscar nomination might be a long shot, but it is surely earned here.

Both Cassavetes and Wahlquist deserve credit for their twisty screenplay, which truly feels original and does not for a moment show its hand. It's a terrible cliché to say the movie kept me guessing, but the film really is full of surprises until the very end. What is interesting is that looking back, everything that occurs seems inevitable, particularly the last beats of the movie which feature a brief but funny cameo from Ray Liotta. Not many people may get to see Yellow in theaters, but they should. It's a surprisingly fresh and entertaining film.