Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Boston Film Festival Day One: Motherhood

Even before new management took over the Boston Film Festival, it always had a hard time getting great guests, and used a familiar scheme to attract one per festival: The award. One studio film which would be getting a major release would be given a notable timeslot - often the Monday at 7pm - there would be no second screening in that theater afterward, and a big star would be given an award, make a little speech, and conduct a Q&A after the movie. I think you paid a bit more for that screening - $15 as opposed to $10 - and you were well advised to buy in advance, both because there were a lot of VIP seats and because folks really dug the idea of seeing a movie with Steve Martin or Kevin Kline.

Now, they still give the award, and there's a Q&A for the featured movie, but if you want to see the award presentation and speech, it's $150. In my less charitable moments, I tend to think that the $150/person party is the festival's entire reason for being now: It gives people a chance to hang out with a movie star, and just enough movies are booked around it to make the thing look legitimate. I doubt that's actually the case, but it's one of those theories that fits the facts too well to dismiss.

Anyway, this year's guest was Uma Thurman, with Motherhood's writer/director, Katherine Kieckmann, also in attendance. They certainly seemed nice enough, and although it wasn't one of the all-time great Q&As - for me, it's hard to beat the raw enthusiasm you see at Fantasia, where the audience is better-prepared than most junket tables and the filmmakers seem like they'd generally be happy to talk genre films all night long - give credit to the audience for paying Ms. Dieckmann as much attention as Ms. Thurman. Host Sara Edwards (a TV critic, I think working for Comcast these days) seemed to be favoring Thurman at the start, but shifted her focus pretty quickly. Yay us!

Something I just thought of: The dates on the calendars in this movie are pointedly May, same as Mother's Day. It is, of course, being released in October.


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 18 September 2009 at Landmark Kendall Square #1 (Boston Film Festival 2009)

Mothers and fathers have a demanding job, and anybody who denies this is a fool. I don't think many would deny that, even in today's modern world, motherhood is more demanding than fatherhood, and probably always will be. That's why I think that Katherine Dieckmann's film named "Motherhood" is a bit of a disappointment: It tells you that motherhood is a big deal, but mainly shows it to us as a sequence of annoyances.

Eliza Welsh (Uma Thurman) is a stay-at-home mom with two kids - Lucas (David & Matthew Schallipp), who is 2, and Clara (Daisy Tahan), who turns six tomorrow. Her husband (Anthony Edwards) is a somewhat scatterbrained fellow who fills their apartment and car with books, and her best friend Sheila (Minnie Driver) has had her husband leave her despite her pregnancy. Today promises to be a hectic day, as Eliza has a birthday party to throw for Clara, the film crew that has taken over her block has towed her car, and she's just found out about a writing contest for a parenting magazine whose deadline just happens to be that night.

I don't think Motherhood means to be a whiny movie - in fact, I think it's often aware of just how annoying it could be in that regard - but sometimes it seems like it just can't help itself. In one scene, for instance, Eliza has to mention unbidden that she's got two apartments in her building. That's just the most obvious example, but this is at times the sort of movie where people who are incredibly fortunate recognize their good fortune but spend a lot of time complaining anyway. We repeatedly watch Eliza flipping out over things that, individually, don't merit such a strong reaction.

The other side to this is that those little things can be pretty funny. Dieckmann has collected plenty of funny anecdotes from her own experiences, and there is something satisfying about watching Eliza act out when confronted with things that the rest of us grin and bear. The crazy Manhattan parents she encounters in the park may seem exaggerated, but they certainly work as jokes. She also gives nice, specific touches to many of her characters - how Eliza looks out for her elderly neighbor, how she labels the pictures she takes of her kids, or how Clara wants everything to be purple. There's an especially fun scene early on where Clara is just utterly immune to her neighbor's snobbishness.

Heck, little Daisy Tahan may be giving the movie's best performance during that scene; aside from being adorable, it completely establishes what kind of kid Clara is. Many of the other members of the cast don't get a chance to create a character that specific; Anthony Edwards and Minnie Driver are well-done variations on the absent-minded dad and best friend, for instance, doing well by that, but never quite add enough to them that they could seem to exist as something other than adjuncts to Eliza. Alice Drummond and Arjun Gupta fare a little better as characters with just one or two scenes where they get to explain themselves. Uma Thurman is good most of the time, especially when Eliza is just going about her business; when the script requires her to get a little farther-out, she has a little trouble bringing it back down to Earth.

That's in large part because Dieckmann is trying to cram everything into one hectic day, and that doesn't always work. A large part of the movie is Eliza claiming that it's the cumulative effect that wears on her, and we wind up having to take her word for that since we don't see her outside this particular day. The writing-contest deadline is artificial, meant to give the movie a ticking clock but not ever shown as urgent. Some of what Eliza does is just absurdly overdramatic, and the end feels too much like a windfall cop-out.

The funny and charming moments outnumber the cringe-worthy ones, though. The movie sometimes seems to have a difficult time deciding on whether it wants to focus on "motherhood" or Eliza's specific issues, but generally does well by both.

Also at EFC.

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