Materna

Lindsay Burdge and Jade Eshete on the subway

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Down in the Valley

Evan Rachel Wood enjoys the beach while Ed Norton enjoys her

 

Ed Norton continues on his quest to become the new Sean Penn with this very unusual and initially brilliant examination of the cowboy myth and its survival into the modern world. This represents itself in a Bonnie and Clyde love story between Harlan, an itinerant cowpuncher cum gas station attendant (Norton) who immediately quits his job when young and foxy Tobe (Evan Rachel Wood) drives in for gas, and heads off to the beach with her. What a free spirit. What we don’t at first know, but soon becomes apparent, is that our Stetson-wearing South Dakotan is a nutjob. But until that is revealed we are treated to the sort of drama that Robert Redford might once have starred in – sun glints off the lens and there’s a cute singer-songwriter with a guitar on the soundtrack. Norton’s hat is an ironical white and so is his horse. He’s a man out of time roaming the San Fernando valley, where the sweep and the scrub of bits of the old west abut new housing developments. And with him periodically rides the girl’s kid brother (Rory Culkin), younger and even more impressionable than the possibly not so dumb girl.

How does the myth of the west fit in to a world driven by other concerns? Can a man like Harlan survive in this different world? Or were men like him an aberration even in the old world, a cometh-the-time/cometh-the-man period that’s now long gone and thank god for that? That’s the direction that writer/director David Jacobson’s film appears to be moseying, but it’s a half-hearted journey and the questions appear to be being raised as much to lend tone rather than to provide answers, or even considerations.

Norton is typically intense as the sad fantasist who isn’t at all the sort of man he’s pretending to be, whose slow cowboy wisdom shtick probably wouldn’t impress anyone other than a 18 year old and her 13-year-old brother. And this is certainly a film for those who like fine actors giving it their best shot. Evan Rachel Wood is a pretty but tough flower as the girl half his age who’s rebelling because it’s in the teenage script. And David Morse is perhaps best of all as her father, the correctional facility officer – a sheriff stand-in – putting things into the film that surely aren’t there on the page, such as that stiff-legged walk of the violent man who’s always aching to punch someone in the face.

For comparison, cowboys in the modern world, look at Midnight Cowboy, or 1998’s The Hi-Lo Country, a pair of imperfect movies for sure, but in style and raggedy tone they’re of a piece with Down in the Valley.

It’s an interesting set-up, propelled by a great cast, but it’s a donut of goodness around the hole of Harlan’s character – if this guy is crazy then this primarily is the story of a delusional man, not a dead-eyed coded assessment of modern America and its accommodation with its own recent myths. Satire, and this is one, is best focused on the strong, not the weak.

 

 

 

Down in the Valley – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2006