PLEASE DON'T GROAN when you hear the premise! Clean is the "touching" story of a junkie trying to get her life back on track and prove she can be a good mother to the child she's abandoned. Aah... you're groaning. But the film really is touching. Mostly because Maggie Cheung (best known in America for her roles in 2046 and Hero), who plays the drug-addled Emily, is brilliant—her scenes with the equally solid Nick Nolte shove the tiredness of the plot to the background.
Emily is an aging MTV-esque VJ from the '90s, who harbors dreams of being a singer/songwriter. When her quasi-famous rocker husband, Lee, dies of a heroin overdose, Emily is consequently blamed for his death by Lee's family and friends (who include Tricky, playing himself). Emily abandons her young son to the care of Lee's father, Albrecht (Nolte) and his dying wife (Martha Henry), even as she dreams of getting her life together and becoming a good mother.
Director Olivier Assayas does a great job of using Cheung's air of quiet sadness to drive home the fact that Emily is lost and lonely—her addictions are never played out as maudlin whine-fests, nor is she ever shown curled up in the fetal position on some dank bathroom floor. Instead, she's simply a stoic, no-nonsense woman who's gotten lost in her sources of instant gratification; Cheung gives the most elegant portrayal of a junkie I've ever seen.
Assayas' decisions aside, the film rides on the bittersweet interactions between Emily and her father-in-law—scenes that accentuate the subtlety of both Cheung and Nolte's acting styles. For the first and only time, we see Emily smile when Albrecht volunteers to help her get clean. That smile is filled with more sadness and hope than two dozen other films with similar plotlines.