4 years

Review: To Write Love on Her Arms (2012)

Brilliant, brutally honest telling of mental illness and addiction

A review of To Write Love on Her Arms

To Write Love on Her Arms started out as an American non-profit organisation based in Melbourne, Florida, with an aim to give hope to young people who struggle with addiction, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts and other mental illness, while directly investing into treatment and recovery. It aims to connect people struggling with these issues to treatment centres, websites, support groups, books and other helpful resources while encouraging them to talk honestly about what they are going through and to live in the community. The organisation gained exposure through musicians and bands who wear memorabilia with the slogan ‘To Write Love on Her Arms’ during their performances and in photographs, and has recently gained more exposure through social media.

TWLOHA was founded in March 2006 by Jamie Tworkowski. The idea for this organisation came from a story he wrote about a 19-year-old girl named Renee Yohe, who had been struggling with depression, self-harm, addiction and attempted suicide. In February 2006, he wrote the story of her life in the five days before she was checked into a treatment centre where she spent time with friends who offered her moral support. The story of Yohe and the organisation was turned into a film entitled ‘To Write Love on Her Arms’, with Kat Dennings playing the role of Yohe and Chad Michael Murray playing Tworkowski.

As a child, Yohee was a huge lover of fairy tales and happily-ever-afters, but they were tainted by a darkness. She battles with mental illness as a teenager and loses her way and gets caught up in drugs, self-harm, alcohol and unwilling sex. After a particularly bad night she calls one of her old school friends for help and he comes to her offering support. She reconnects with her friends, and leans on them in her time of need as she commits to getting sober and overcome her struggles. Renee is able to keep herself sober for five days with the help of her friends Jessie (Juliana Harkavy), Dylan (Mark Saul) and his boss David McKenna (Rupert Friend) and then checks into a treatment centre for addiction where she stays for six months and is able to overcome her addiction.

The movie starts off with Renee as a young child, where she is surrounded by her drawings of her fairy tales, butterflies and beautiful gardens, with a voice-over of a young Renee speaking about her life. She explains her love for her princesses and happily-ever-afters, but it soon gets darker as night hits and you see the first hint of her wild imagination and mental illness beginning to take light as her happy drawings turn to monsters out to get the little Renee. A time lapse happens as she continues to talk and you witness her discovering self-harm and turning into a teenager. The drawings on her wall get more elaborate, less happy fantasy, more realistic drawings with darker colours.

The film follows Renee and her two best friends as they go to school. It’s evident early on that music is a happy distraction for her, as is art, and it plays a huge part in the movie. They are given a flyer for a Halloween party and they decide to go after some persuading from Renee, who is later given drugs and begins to hallucinate. Her friends try to persuade her to leave but she refuses and is left at the party alone. This is where the movie begins its dark decent. From this point on there is a series of rough nights, drugs, self-harm and unwanted sexual advances for Renee.

Two years later, after a particularly horrible experience Renee calls for help from one of her old school friends Dylan who agrees to pick her up. Renee has hit her low point, after an encounter with David McKenna she agrees to go to rehab to get better. However, she finds out that she must stay sober for five days before she can be admitted into the treatment facility. David McKenna takes her in to his home and there she stays with two best friends for the next five days, getting sober. It is here she meets Jamie and tells him her story.

First off, there is nothing incredible about this story but that’s what makes it that much more interesting. The fact that things like this happen so often to people all over the world, so many people battle with mental illness and drug or alcohol abuse but for the most part feel alone in their struggle – that’s what makes this movie good. It is proving that people aren’t alone and that although it is hard and it is a struggle, it’s possible to come out the other side. What stands out about this film for me though, is the depiction of mental illness and drug abuse and the whole downward spiral it can lead to. In my experience I have found that mental illness is not easy to portray, sure, there have been plenty of good films about mental illness (One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Girl, Interrupted) but what is different between those and this film is the way it was not only written but shown. The director Nathan Frankowski has brilliantly used visual effects to bring to life what Renee is seeing and imagining as a child, and as she grows. It is done so well that it is able to take you back to what it felt like to let your imagination run wild as a child and plays on that. As she gets older, the visual effects also change cleverly when she is older and adapt to her age and the maturity of her imagination, shown more through music as she distracts herself by imagining herself in different situations while the music plays. Also noteworthy, Frankowski will happily fill this movie with long cuts, instead of chopping and changing between scenes, which really draws the viewer in, making you feel like you are with Renee, experiencing these things with her which hugely benefits the feel and atmosphere of the films content.

Another thing that impressed me was the acting. I admit, although I like Kat Dennings I was slightly dubious of her in this role as I have only ever see her play cheeky, bold, strong characters which is the complete opposite of the character of Renee. I learned very quickly, though, that I needn’t have worried. Dennings plays this role flawlessly, she is able to perfect the troubled persona of the lost young girl battling through life. Watching her, I somehow felt as if I was imposing, watching this girl struggle with her own private issues. The supporting cast, also deserve a nod. I haven’t seen anything with Chad Michael Murray in since I was a young teen watching One Tree Hill, so I didn’t expect him to be able to sway me with his performance, but I was wrong again. All the supporting actors are able to perfectly compliment Dennings in her role and match the same quality of their performance. It’s one ‘based on a true story’ film that I felt was actually close to life and not blown wildly out of proportion for Hollywood.

Honestly, I think this film is a true hidden gem. It was produced in 2012 and has somehow missed having a mainstream release which I think is a real shame. It’s full of harrowing, harsh moments filtered with enough hope and small happy moments to keep you going. It’s a brutally honest telling of a young girls struggle with mental illness, drugs and suicidal thoughts, shown through beautiful cinematography, a killer soundtrack and amazing acting. The story is shared tastefully, and although hard to watch at times, is completely worth holding out until the end. I’m sure this film could resonate with so many people, and if not personally then it can at least raise awareness of what it’s actually like to combat the stigma of mental illness. I would suggest heading out to buy this film, it’s most definitely worth seeing and I know I will watch it a fair few times more.

As a bonus, the real Renee Yohe sings in a band called Bearcat, so check them out, too.

If you want to check out more information about the organisation you can go to www.twloha.com where you can buy merchandise, donate to the cause or check out events.


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