The year’s prevailing Sundance theme–young males kicking and screaming their way into acceptance of adult duties and/or downward mobility–finds one of its fullest expressions in “Momma’s Man,” director Azazel Jacobs‘s exceptionally tender, funny, and poignant New York indie. Like “Sugar,” and “Ballast,” the festival’s other great narrative films, Jacobs’s low-fi third feature forges unique stylistic territory for the American independent film while specifically recalling such disparate classics as Alexander Sokurov‘s “Mother and Son” and Albert Brooks‘s woefully underrated “Mother.” Jacobs’s work is a rare cinematic expression of heartfelt matriphilia; someone in the industry with love to spare needs to pick up this gifted orphan right away.
Where wacky family dysfunction has become more egregious than mere cliche in American comedies, “Momma’s Man” dares to begin with a gentle study of familial love and take it from there. We can tell from the film’s first minutes that thirtysomething husband and father Mikey (Matt Boren), extending a holiday in his parents’ home to absurd lengths while making his wife back home understandably crazy, is in a state of arrested development if not full-blown regression. With his pudgy face and doughboy features, Mikey appears as a baby despite his stubble and acts as a toddler, staring at glow-in-the dark stars on his childhood ceiling and hiding fully under a down comforter as if yearning to return to the womb. That Mom (endearingly played by the director’s own mother Flo Jacobs) calls the grown Mikey “angel” and dotingly offers to nurse him with food and drink at almost every opportunity doesn’t help him to grow up, and it is to the film’s great credit that it portrays parental separation anxiety as among the causes of extended adolescence. If the momma’s man can’t leave the nest, it’s in part because he was never sufficiently encouraged to do so.
As days stretch into weeks for this visit, Mikey rummages through the apartment to find his old comic books, superhero costumes, an acoustic guitar, and a teenage love-hate note from the one who got away. These familiarly found objects from parental cold storage become the stuff of Jacobs’s warmly anecdotal but ultimately cohesive and vividly insightful screenplay.
As if inspired by the bric-a-brac that overwhelms the artist family’s modest Tribeca apartment (rendered as indelibly as the cluttered flat in Hou Hsiao-hsien‘s “Flight of the Red Balloon“), “Momma’s Man” tells a simple story in such acute detail that it becomes not simple at all. Might moving back home represent not the kid’s infantilism so much as his grownup attempt to move forward by revisiting if not resolving his past? Could it be that what the kid needs, maybe without knowing it, is his mother’s hug rather than her loving offers of coffee and tea and soup? Is reconciliation with one’s parents too far out of reach even in the most strained circumstances? When taciturn Dad (experimental-film giant Ken Jacobs, wonderfully deadpan) suddenly gives a kitchen table demonstration of an old windup toy, is that not his silent way of saying everything there is to say about the inevitable slowing and eventual stopping of human life? (Toys are us?)
One of the challenges of “Momma’s Man” is that its character’s aimlessness inevitably extends to the narrative in scenes that are alternately painful and hilarious in their sheer length and overall mood of anxious indecision. Jacobs never grows tired of showing Mikey wandering around the apartment in his T-shirt and tighty whiteys–and, if we’re on the film’s wavelength, neither do we. When, at long last, Mikey resolves to do something about his growth of beard, he doesn’t just apply shaving cream to his face, but to his nose and forehead, too.
Other humor in the movie may be less relevant to Mikey’s particular struggles, but no less welcome: A scene involving his macho friend’s unlikely appreciation of Indigo Girls‘ “Closer to Fine” is among the funniest Amerindie moments in many moons. But the film’s heart is in the drama. Without giving it away, I’ll just say that “Momma’s Man” culminates in a scene of overwhelming beauty, one that resonates equally for mother, father, son, and audience.
indieWIRE’s coverage of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival is available in iW’s special Park City section.