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Not so much a film as four shorts held together by a framing device, Materna looks at women through the prism of the family – the mother, the daughter, the sister, the neice. All four stories and women are united for the briefest of moments on one of those New York subway journeys made unendurable by a male asshole running his mouth.

First the mother, Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil), a mo-cap artist aged about 35 being encouraged by her own mother to either get a man pronto or get her eggs frozen. Since part of Jean’s daily routine seems to consist of throwing up, her mother’s prayers already look to have been answered, though Jean might not see things that way.

Back to the interlinking subway carriage for a bit more ranting and threatening behaviour before meeting the daughter, Mona (Jade Eshete), an actor bouncing around at the lower end of success. Mona was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and her story is all about her fractious relationship with her mother, who would like her to return to the fold and is threatening to cut her loose completely if Mona won’t.

Lindsay Burdge plays Ruth, the sister, a conservative mom with a liberal brother, Gabe (Rory Culkin), who turns up one day at her house on a mission of mercy. This ends badly, with Gabe in a huge (and powerfully written) argument with Ruth and family taking in pretty much the gamut of culture-warrior issues from guns to gays, with the Black Lives/All Lives Matter deliberate bit of misunderstanding taken in en route.

And finally the neice (Assol Abdullina), a Kyrgyzstan-American back in the home country for the funeral of her uncle, and finding conservative patriarchy even more oppressive and secretive than she remembers.

Two of the actors, Assol Abdullina and Jade Eshete, co-wrote the script with director David Gutnik, and its stealthily delivered message appears to be one that both sides of the culture war might be able to agree on – that family asserts a more of a pull on the lives of women than it does on men. All four women feel that tug, for good and ill; that ranting loner on the subway is a man.

None of the stories are a bag of laughs, it must be said, and the film itself has no real dramatic throughline. The women find themselves together on the subway but they’re not “together” on the subway. Though, without getting too spoiler-y, that isn’t entirely true either.

Gutnik and the gang manage to pull a dramatic finish out of the bag and the whole film is a well made piece of largely on-the-hoof work done on a meagre budget. That said, the Kyrgyzstan sits slightly apart from the others. It looks different for a start, having been shot with a different crew (I”m guessing this from the multiple job title entries on the imdb), but it’s also the most complete story – there’s an arc, emotional beats, a shock reveal.

This is Gutnik’s feature debut after a handful of shorts and he’s already got another feature lined up and ready to go, Brighton Beach, a crime thriller set among the Russian-American gangsters of the titular New York neighbourhood. On this evidence, the omens are good.

Materna – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

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