Tag Archives: Mother

CAPSULE: SPOONFUL OF SUGAR (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Mercedes Bryce Morgan

FEATURING: Morgan Saylor, Danilo Crovetti, Kat Foster, Myko Olivier, Keith Powell

PLOT: Millicent applies for a nanny job caring for a special needs kid with crippling allergies; unbeknownst to the parents (who are pretty screwed up themselves), Millicent is under psychiatric care, undergoing an experimental therapy where she microdoses LSD daily.

COMMENTS: Millicent, the lead character of Spoonful of Sugar, has been prescribed LSD by her psychiatrist, to be taken in microdoses. Microdosing psychedelics is an online fad taking its cue from homeopathy. It involves taking amounts of the drug too small too produce psychedelic effects on a regular schedule. When this practice is followed, the user does not hallucinate. Also, short-term tolerance to LSD builds very quickly, requiring larger doses to achieve any effects, so regular dosing should provide diminishing returns. The practice’s proponents claim that it improves their well-being and quality of life without producing a disabling intoxication, but the supposed benefits have never been studied on a meaningful scale; the evidence is overwhelmingly anecdotal. It is currently not legal to prescribe LSD.

In other words, real-life microdosing is nothing at all like the picture painted in Spoonful of Sugar: hallucinations would be virtually impossible, and no reputable psychiatrist would (or could) ever prescribe the substance. In one sense, this is a minor issue. We could suspend disbelief and head-canon Millicent’s treatment into some kind of experimental pilot program set sometime in the near future. We can posit that she hallucinates because of an underlying mental illness, possibly exacerbated by the LSD regimen (a reasonable supposition). But I think that the sloppy handling of the microdosing concept underlies the problems with the promising but ultimately unfulfilling Spoonful of Sugar. The premise sounds cool, but it just doesn’t work, at least not as executed here. But the filmmakers decide to go ahead with it anyway, trusting that the viewer will skim over the obvious flaws and focus on the vibrant hallucinations (a demonic sex scene, a crawling severed finger) and dark psychology.

If you can get involved enough in the story to make it to the end, Spoonful of Sugar concludes on a strong note, with an exciting and unexpected violent finale ending in a dark twist. Hopes of running into another psychedelic nightmare prods you to stick with it. But unfortunately, the bad mostly outweighs the good here. Morgan Saylor is asked to strike a difficult tone as the “weird girl,” required to be quietly sinister, wounded, naive, and delusional, all at the same time. It’s a tough assignment, and she has difficulty creating a believable character: her expressions and readings are awkward and forced, forcing her wardrobe and hairstyle (Red Riding Hood coat, Pippi Longstocking braids) to do the heavy lifting in constructing her childlike persona. The script, which includes creaky, clumsily ironic lines like “people aren’t always as they seem” and “women aren’t violent,” doesn’t provide a lot of support. The other main performances are fine, especially Kat Foster as the mother with issues relating to her sick child and a secret taste for masochism; Danilo Crovetti also makes a convincing kid, helped by the fact that he’s embedded in an astronaut costume for most of the picture and has very few lines. But a credible performance from Millicent is central to making this logically-challenged scenario successfully pull off the trick it wants to—and on this score, the experiment falls short.

A Spoonful of Sugar is now on DVD and available on VOD; it also streams on Shudder.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… a strange and uncanny psychedelic thriller with excellent performances at its core.”–Jon Mendelson, CBR.com (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: EXCISION (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Richard Bates Jr.

FEATURING: AnnaLynne McCord, Traci Lords, Roger Bart, Ariel Winter, Jeremy Sumpter

PLOT: Bored at school, frustrated by her home life, and tormented by nightmares that transform her dreams of becoming a surgeon into bloody tableaux, 18-year-old Pauline tries to solve her issues by herself, with unexpected consequences.

Still from Excision (2012)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Excision is a character study focusing on one very screwed-up young woman, but the film delicately walks the line between making her behavior fancifully quirky and disturbingly repellent. The distinctive point-of-view, excellent acting by the two leads, and an ending that earns its dropped jaws all make this one to remember.

COMMENTS: By now, the sullen teen girl with no f’s to give has become a trope unto itself. From Daria to Wednesday Addams to nearly every character ever played by Aubrey Plaza, the type combines a steadfast commitment to outsider status with just the hint of potential homicidal intent. There are a lot of reasons to think that Excision‘s Pauline walks down this same familiar road. She’s fearless when it comes to getting in the faces of those she deems inferior. She’s devoid of shame in asking for what she wants, such as when she walks up to a boy and tells him point-blank that she wants to lose her virginity to him. And she’s dripping with snark for nearly everyone. In that respect, it’s easy to want to be on her side, to wish that everyone would just let her be herself.

But then there are the dreams, which feature naked corpses, autopsies, extractions, and no shortage of blood. On their own, they’re baroque, but their influence starts to spill over into the waking world, such as when Pauline takes it upon herself to pierce her own nose, ask a teacher if she can get an STD from copulating with the dead, or perform her own exploratory surgery on a wounded bird. As much as you want to root for the underdog, it’s not hard to see why everyone else in the film is put off by her attitude. She’s definitely creepy.

McCord devours her leading role. With unkempt eyebrows and lingering acne, she’s the girl you expect to be transformed into a beautiful swan in the second act, but she can’t help but be herself. And that self is someone who clearly desires love and appreciation, as much as she bats away the suggestions of everyone who thinks they know who she should be. As good as McCord is, the performance from Traci Lords as her mother is downright spectacular. Despite the potential for her repressed and moralistic character to become simplistic and even parodistic (and in spite of the implied irony in her casting), she is genuinely excellent. Through their committed and entertaining performances, McCord and Lords elevate the mother-daughter relationship away from the starkly drawn lines of Carrie and to something akin to the complexities of Lady Bird.

Writer/director Bates, who expanded his original short film to feature length, has one other card to play, and it’s as interesting as it is irrelevant. He offers up a bevy of cameos, several of which are immediately appealing to a weird sensibility. Moving beyond Marlee Matlin and Matthew Gray Gubler, Excision welcomes such luminaries as Ray Wise as a rather intense principal, Malcolm McDowell as a seen-it-all math teacher, and, most pointedly, John Waters as a plain-minded pastor called upon to double as an amateur therapist. Perhaps what’s most odd about this casting is how utterly normal every one of these cult legends seems. The effect is similar to ’s decision to populate The Informant! with comedians playing it totally straight. If these are the weirdos, we ask ourselves, then what the hell is Pauline?

Excision is a demented character study right up until the very end, when Pauline’s psychic trauma manifests in the real world. It works as a shocking piece of horror, but also makes sense as a logical endpoint for Pauline’s efforts to balance her dangerous impulses with her eagerness to please. They’re not compatible, and the only reasonable result is catastrophe. Many films show you the monster; few go to this effort to show you how it got that way.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…an overripe mélange of Cronenbergian ‘body horror’ and alienated Lynchian weirdness. “–Nigel Floyd, Time Out (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Tori, who called it “amazing” and said “you can’t imagine where the plot goes.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEAU IS AFRAID (2023)

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Beau Is Afraid is available for VOD purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patti LuPone, Armen Nahapetian, , Nathan Lane

PLOT: Anxiety-ridden Beau is scheduled to take a trip to see his domineering mother, but it becomes a nightmare as the universe conspires against his success.

Still from Beau Is Afraid (2023)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Ari Aster takes a break from elevated horror to film three hours of gonzo black comedy that captures what I imagine hour 36 of a nonstop meth binge must feel like: a tsunami of paranoia, hallucination, and self-loathing that seems like it will never end. It’s an experiment in excess that few directors ever get the chance to indulge in—a gamble that could make or break a career, or be forgotten and seen as an outlier oddity in an auteur’s oeuvre years down the road. Whatever it is, assisted by an (as always) all-in Joaquin Phoenix, Aster seizes the opportunity to present the type of big budget freakoutshow we’re unlikely to see again for a long time. It’s a weird movie happening; see it now, so years down the line you can brag to the next generation of weirdo cinephiles that you caught Beau on the big screen.

COMMENTS: I don’t think the new pills Beau’s therapist prescribes him at the beginning of the film are working. They may even be making things worse. Not only does the fact that they must be taken with water raise problems (and plot points) for a patient with an obsessive anxiety disorder who lives in a tenement with iffy plumbing, but we don’t really know much about how Beau sees the world before the medication switch. Afterwards, the city Beau sees around him looks something like Taxi Driver a few weeks before everyone flees town and officially signs up with a Road Warrior gang. The street on which he lives throngs with homeless ruffians, including a head-to-toe tatted thug who particularly has it out for Beau. The urban terrors are so hyperbolic that we can’t for a second buy that Beau exists in our world (little nuggets like a soldier who died in a non-existent campaign in Caracas suggest an alternate reality). By the time Beau discovers a bum clinging to his bathroom ceiling, we realize that we’re trapped far, far inside his paranoid mind, and the omnipresent threats we see through his eyes aren’t all there.

Like a symphony (maybe Bernstein’s “Age of Anxiety”), Beau Is Afraid is structured in four movements (with interstitial interludes flashing back to Beau’s boyhood). Between the beginning of his journey and his return to his childhood home, Beau makes two major stops along the way: first, at the home of a kindly couple played by Amy Ryan and Nathan Lane, then with a community of theatrical vagabonds who dub themselves the “Orphans of the Forest.” The film’s opening has an After Hours vibe, as an unbelievable run of bad luck—a stolen key, an apartment lockout, a naked stabber—conspires to keep Beau from setting out on his dreaded reunion with his mother. The last Continue reading APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: BEAU IS AFRAID (2023)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: LA PIETÀ (2022)

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La pieda

DIRECTED BY: Eduardo Casanova

FEATURING: , Manel Llunell

PLOT: Young Mateo is diagnosed with cancer, much to the maternal delight of his uncommonly protective mother, Libertad.

COMMENTS: Nestled between the Venn diagram data sets for “Sledgehammer” and “Soft” lies La Pietà, Eduardo Casanova’s sophomore feature. If you’ll permit the flowery language, as the film’s leads would, there is, verily, a great deal of “nestling” here in general. The title card’s image, the climax’s mise en scene—and regularly throughout, one character is seen in the arms of another, especially young Mateo embraced by his suffocatingly loving mother. Libertad, for ’tis her name, loves her son to a degree so monumental it risks crushing him under the weight.

Within the confines of a sepulchral home wrought of soft-black marble and pink curtains, Mateo lives under the protective wing of the omnipresent Libertad. They dine together, watch television together, and occasionally sleep together. On the occasions they leave the home they (both) attend rehearsals for Libertad’s dance ensemble; later, when it is revealed one or both of them suffers a malady, they (both) spend time at hospital. Libertad is forever fretful her dear boy may wander off if he is not at her heels. Meanwhile, dear boy does often hear the siren’s call Outside That Door; a foray there triggers his downfall into complete dependency.

A parallel story concerns the family of a military official attempting to flee North Korea (the film is set just prior to the passing of Kim Jong-il), adding further to this obvious treatise on dictatorial behavior and the reliance cultivated in the subjected. Mother grills Mateo about the quality of his bowel movement over dinner; she offers to help him bathe, and insists on trimming his toenails (which becomes an unlikely plot point); and, when the lad is weakened by chemotherapy, Libertad finds his helplessness far too alluring. Mateo is vaguely aware of how this behavior is damaging him. As he navigates his world of soft-black stone and pink fabric, he has augurs and guides: his estranged father (who has mommy issues of his own), his therapist (trying to pry apart the symbiotic pair), and Consuelo, a mysterious hospital patient who desires her own freedom.

Nestled in the heavy-handedness (of both the mother and the director) are those subtleties I mentioned. Beneath the situational cringe humor lies a subtler vein of comedy. Libertad’s conversation with a hospital receptionist about pink ribbons for breast cancer is an honest-to-goodness chuckler (“There’s no color for brain cancer?”) Casanova references his debut, Skins, with a brief shot of “Poopie Loops”, whose box features the ass-faced woman. Mateo’s pregnant step mother’s insistence (yes, there is a lot of maternity going on) that she is not smoking when she demonstrably is makes for a bleakly amusing counterpoint to Libertad’s obsessive need for control.

Her control, in turn, reflects the director’s control of his sets, costumes, scenes, and choreography. La Pietà kicks off with a baroque dance number, which ticks along perfectly right until the singer collapses in a fit of helpless tears. But even in his overblown metaphors, Eduardo Casanova softens the edges with chiffony, pastel-pink.

Read our interview with Eduardo Casanova.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“A Freudian field day, the campy-dark humor blends softly into surreal depictions of simulated birth, shared baths, full frontal bits on display and savage scenes of Mateo’s declining will to reject his mother’s authority.”–Holly Jones, Variety (festival screening)

CAPSULE: WHERE’S POPPA? (1970)

DIRECTED BY: Carl Reiner

FEATURING: George Segal, , Trish Van Devere, Ron Liebman

PLOT: An attorney’s life is upended by his abusive, senile old mother, and he casts about in vain for a path that will allow him to find romance without resorting to matricide.

Still from Where's Poppa? (1970)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Where’s Poppa? is outrageous, running head-first into boundaries with glee and a subversive sensibility. But it’s a very calculated enterprise, with rules broken mostly for the satisfaction of breaking them, rather than for any larger artistic vision.

COMMENTS: The prospects for weirdness in Where’s Poppa? are pretty high at the outset. After a lengthy take of George Segal waking up to the mindless drone of a tedious morning radio show, he cleans himself up and calmly dresses in a gorilla suit for the purpose of scaring his mother to death. It doesn’t work, and he leaves her propped up in front of Sesame Street with a breakfast of orange slices and Lucky Charms topped with Dr. Pepper.

George Segal’s hangdog expression and exhausted rage (at one point, he manages to combine a desperate plea with a profane threat in a uniformly pitiful tone) go a long way to selling the misery of his character’s hopeless situation. After all, Ruth Gordon may be her usual rough-hewn, taboo-ignorant self, and her character may be frustratingly senile and casually cruel (even through her forgetfulness, she remembers that Segal isn’t her favorite child). But in the annals of awful parents in film, she’s pretty tame. What she is, is Jewish. She is the ultimate iteration of the henpecking, disapproving Jewish mom. Not for nothing does critic Dennis Schwartz call Where’s Poppa?the mother of all Jewish-mother joke films.” (An alternate ending carries this joke to its ultimate, taboo-pulverizing conclusion.)

So there’s your conflict: Segal is either going to get rid of his mom or he’s not. And the filmmakers know that once we have seen the answer, the movie is over. So we get a lot of playing for time, with Segal by turns smitten and pleading with would-be love interest Van Devere (they make a cute couple), and enduring endless humiliations at the hands of his mother. (The advertising team was particularly delighted with a scene where Gordon yanks down Segal’s pants and kisses him on the posterior; a witless suggestion that the scene had been commemorated on a postage stamp is repeated in numerous trailers for the film.) But after that, there’s not really anywhere else to go.

So director Reiner and screenwriter Ron Klane (whose credits include the more charmingly black Weekend at Bernie’s) go outward. It turns out that everyone we encounter is some level of insane. A football coach is a child kidnapper. An Army general proudly recalls his cold-blooded murder of surrendering enemies, while a peace activist advocates for his cause through maiming. A bridegroom indulges himself in a scatological fashion on his wedding night. The insanity of these characters and more appear to be infectious, as Segal’s grip on reality only becomes more tenuous and lapses into Walter Mitty-style fantasies, such as his mother’s demise at the hands of a dog, or Van Devere beckoning to him in a wedding gown while he himself sits astride a horse in full knight regalia.

Of course, the most insane of all may be Segal’s schlemiel brother, the subject of an agonizing subplot that exists primarily to deliver “hilarious” jokes about African-American thuggery, gay panic, and rape. It’s tempting to suggest that these are jokes which have aged poorly, but there’s so little joke to be had in the first place (for example, the rape joke seems to revolve primarily around the repetition of the word “rape”) that it seems hard to believe the sell-by date was anytime in the 20th century. This is not to say Where’s Poppa? is without laughs, mind you. For example, a scene where a man in a gorilla costume gets the cab that would not stop for an African-American woman has real bite. But the movie’s throw-it-against-the-wall approach to humor allows for no polish or refinement, so the jokes that bomb do so catastrophically.

Where’s Poppa? has the courage of its convictions, but in the end has no real convictions, other than an overwhelming desire to be shocking. That goal is met fairly often, but like a feast of cotton candy, it’s not very filling when the meal is over.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a terrifically acted, unevenly directed, wild, absurd comedy-fantasy that is hilarious one moment, amusing the next, and foolish the moment after that.”–Danny Peary, “Cult Movies”