In Enid Zentelis’ small town saga about addiction and co-dependency between a mother and daughter, we’ve got all the makings of a highly combustible situation. Fay, a single mother comforting a grown daughter with a chronic back injury from an earlier car accident, turns a blind eye to the girl’s resulting addiction from pain-killers. She distracts herself with her hothouse plants and her job running the local Mailboxes stop, until the arrival in town of Beckett, a disarming male environmentalist she encounters in the local health food store. She offers him a room for rent in her own home, quickly trying to spark a relationship between her daughter and the new stranger. But this guy has eyes for something beyond compost piles and that’s Fay herself. I said it was combustible.

A Spotlight entry in this year’s Tribeca Film Festival from Olympus Pictures, writer-director Zentelis has created a highly-charged acting vehicle for her trio of stars in Bottled Up. The pivotal role of the mother belongs to the Oscar-winning character actress, Melissa Leo. Witnessing her in films like Frozen River and The Fighter, we have come to expect gut-wrenching performances from this actress.

Here, as if doing a 180-degree turn from the raw-bone strength of such portrayals, she is more like a wimpish, overprotective older sister to her daughter Sylvie. She is so submissive and self-deprecating when trying to cope with Sylvie’s frequent bouts of hysteria, that we expect her to disappear in a puddle of self-recrimination before our very eyes. Her dress and posture only contribute to the overall downtrodden effect. Her unadorned finely-lined features are a giveaway to her despair but when she sees herself — however briefly — as reflected in a young man’s gaze as beautiful, she emerges as a small town swan, manifesting a radiant quality that this actress can reveal to the camera. When it finally dawns on her that she and not the daughter is the one he has set his eyes on, she can only cry out, “We—I—don’t deserve you.” It’s one of the most painful moments in this film to watch.

Do such pitiful characters still exist? In Zentelis’ universe, they obviously do. Marin Ireland as Sylvie gives a harrowing performance as the Vicodin-riddled daughter. There’s no shame left in her actions when drugs hold the high card. She steals Beckett’s backpack in one moment and offers to give blood in the next to pay him back. Fay herself is no stranger to compromising principles, when she pretends a shoulder injury in the physician’s office to obtain the prescription drugs her daughter needs.

Josh Hamilton, as the young man on a mission to clean up the Hudson River, as well as spread some happy endorphins around at the same time with his sexploits, is about as ingenuous as they come. Professing his love for Fay, he tells her that he “never met a person before that he loved more than he loved a tree.” Granted, the actor possesses a bumbling charm in looks and actions — at times reminiscent of Will Farrell — but can we really take him for real?

We’ll have to trust the filmmaker on that one. To Hamilton’s credit, he can say a line like, “I wanted to make waves and I made a blip,” and we don’t doubt his sincerity. And by playing director to her own screenplay, Zentelis has been able to wrangle some tender and unforgettable moments out of her cast. It’s a rare talent and she excels at it. Another director might have chosen to pump up the eroticism more and to let the viewer revel in a randy young man’s fancy for a lonely older woman. But that’s not the Zentelis style. She has opted to tell a mother and daughter’s story and how far they can run from the truth of their own condition.

If she can handle the rigors of hothouse interiors, she has also interspersed her script with the atmospheric beauty of the river itself. The play of changing light on the water is undoubtedly due in no small part to cinematographer Daniel Sharnoff’s fine efforts.

Zentelis has admitted to experiencing a lot of tiny towns in her life, something impossible to do without experiencing a healthy number of “townies” with their own bottled-up emotions and dreams. Raised in Bellingham, Washington, she currently resides in Newburgh, New York, in the Hudson River Valley. Perhaps to completely buy into such innocence and its aftermath as an audience, we have to put some of our jaded 21st century sensibilities on hold and stop Twittering on our iPhones long enough to hear the twittering in the trees over our heads. If a film can make us do that, that’s saying a lot.

Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars

“Bottled Up” opened on April 19 at The Tribeca Film Festival, and had its final public screening on Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

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Featured image: Becket Strum (played by Josh Hamilton) & Fay Worth (played by Melissa Leo). Photo Credit: Olympus Pictures.