‘MAD’: Slamdance Review

Courtesy of Slamdance Film Festival
True to life.

Robert G. Putka’s microbudget comedy about a fractious family troubled by mental instability premiered in the narrative features competition.

During the Cold War era, MAD was an acronym for the strategic nuclear policy of “Mutually Assured Destruction,” but in this film it might as well signify “Mother And Daughters” — or both, really, as a combative, emotionally compromised middle-aged woman starts to go off the rails, leaving her bickering grown-up kids to cope. Robert G. Putka’s debut feature makes some trenchant observations regarding dysfunctional family interactions, and although the performances are well worth watching, the storyline itself can be a bit of a slog.

Recently divorced Mel (Maryann Plunkett) can’t deal with her husband’s abandonment or the chronic neglect of her two daughters, as an emotional crisis triggers a tailspin of depression and suicidal thoughts, landing her in the hospital emergency room. The medical staff diagnoses a nervous breakdown and recommends sending her to the psychiatric ward for observation, particularly since she’s also bipolar. Mel’s daughter Connie (Jennifer Lafleur) contends with most of the fallout because younger sister Casey (Eilis Cahill) is too apathetic to manage. Since neither wants to deal with caring for Mel, they convince their mom to accept voluntary psychiatric care at the hospital.

While Mel endures group-therapy sessions led by a boorish counselor and attempts to avoid her unstable fellow patients, Connie tries to get back to a normal routine at home with her husband and three kids. However, she soon finds out that she and her co-workers are the targets of an official inquiry into illegal bid-rigging by her company after her superiors throw her under the bus as federal investigators close in. Casey, meanwhile, continues her aimless activities, some of which appear to involve performing on webcam and other random attempts to help earn rent. With Mel approaching the end of her treatment, the sisters have to decide how to move forward with their mother’s care, although neither is prepared to face that prospect with much enthusiasm.

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In crafting the fractious situation between the three women, Putka has written a script that reverberates with all of the resentments and recriminations of genuine family relationships. Snarky dialogue, inexcusable behavior and sly stratagems are all par for the course as they argue their way to a makeshift resolution. To his credit, he also recognizes that reconciliation is a hard-won achievement that rarely meets everyone’s needs when shaping a viable compromise.

Putka’s trio of fine actresses conjures a believable family unit unpredictably anchored by Lafleur’s affecting performance as the know-it-all bossy sister whose carefully structured life begins to unravel after some colossally poor career moves. Film and TV vet Plunkett keeps the tension high by pitching Mel’s paranoid rants at just the right level for maximum aggravation, and Cahill manages a convincing turn as the chronically unreliable sibling who actually can make amends once she accepts some genuine responsibility.

Putka and his capable crew shot the film on BlackMagic Cinema cameras, and although they sacrifice some degree of image quality in the process, the level of intimacy achieved with the cast is well worth the tradeoff.

Venue: Slamdance Film Festival (Narrative Features)
Production company: Caterpillar Event Productions
Cast: Jennifer Lafleur, Maryann Plunkett, Eilis Cahill, Mark Reeb, David Sullivan, Chris Doubek, Conor Casey
Director-writer: Robert G. Putka
Producers: Mike Blanchard, Robert G. Putka, Joe Battaglia, Eilis Cahill
Executive producers: Mark Reeb, Kevin J. Hughes
Director of photography: Jay Keitel
Production designer: Damon Smith
Costume designer: Eric Samuel Robinson
Editor: Ben Measor
Music: Philip Hirzel
Sales: Reeb Film

Not rated, 83 minutes