'Mother' ('Ema'): Film Review

Meteoriit Ou
All about his mother.

Estonia’s official entry in the foreign-language film Oscar race is a darkly funny suspense drama about a mother caring for her comatose son.

The young Estonian director Kadri Kousaar seemed poised for great things when her prize-winning debut Magnus (2007) became her small Baltic homeland’s first-ever Cannes selection. Her second feature, The Arbiter (2103), was something of an overambitious misfire. But her third makes good on her early promise, and has been nominated as Estonia’s official Oscar contender.

Mother is a crisp, sardonic, darkly funny mystery thriller with a claustrophobic feel that occasionally betrays its roots as an Irish radio drama. But it translates well to the screen, with vaguely Nordic Noir undertones that will have obvious festival appeal and modest theatrical potential, especially if it makes the Academy shortlist.

In her first headline role, Tiina Malberg displays her rich range of hangdog expressions as Elsa, a middle-aged housewife and self-sacrificing mother living a life of quiet desperation in a small Estonian town. A virtual prisoner in her cramped suburban house, Elsa is a fastidious domestic drudge to her emotionally detached husband Arvo (Andres Tabun) and 24-hour caregiver to her adult son Lauri (Siim Maaten), a former schoolteacher who now lies in a long-term coma following a mysterious gun attack. The sole glimmer of passion in Elsa’s drab daily routine is her clandestine affair with Lauri’s co-worker Aarne (Andres Noormets), though their liaisons are fraught and fleeting.

Nobody knows why Lauri was shot, but the whole town is eager to find out, especially as he withdrew a large sum of money from the bank shortly before the attack. His anxious friend Andres (Jaak Prints) can barely contain his anger, as he was counting on a loan to help salvage his failing business and ailing marriage. Girlfriend Liina (Katrin Kalma) tearfully confesses her infidelity to Lauri, then discreetly searches his bedroom for the missing cash as she needs the down payment on a new apartment. Mentally unbalanced ex-lover Riin (Rea Lest) seems the most affected by Lauri’s terrible fate, offering him some tough-love solutions: “What can I do for you? Put a pillow on your face?”

Unfolding at a brisk pace, Mother is structured as an episodic series of house visits to the comatose Lauri, and mostly played for deadpan comedy with tragic, lightly noir-ish touches that darken as the plot thickens. Koussar and her cinematographer Jean-Noel Mustonen use extensive hand-held and close-up shots to add textural variety to the restrictive setting, which mostly takes place inside Elsa’s humble home. Jaan Pehk’s spare, discordant score amplifies the unease without veering into gothic melodrama.

Only in the final act does Kousaar break up the film's linear chronology, using brief flashbacks to finally unlock the mystery and expose the secrets of her nervy, haunted protagonists. The shock twist arrives with a bitter sting, assuming you do not see it coming. But even if you do, the sour payoff still bites deeper than a standard suspense thriller, throwing new light on the unspoken power dynamics seething away below the placid surface of tight-lipped families and small communities. Mother is a slender chamber drama from a tiny Baltic state, but it packs a satisfying universal punch.

Production company: Meteoriit OU
Cast: Tiina Malberg, Andres Tabun, Andres Noormets, Siim Maaten, Jaan Pehk, Jaak Prints, Rea Lest, Katrin Kalma
Director: Kadri Kousaar
Screenwriters: Leana Jalukse, Al Wallcat, inspired by the radio drama
Coma by Kevin McCann
Producer: Aet Laigu
Cinematographer: Jean-Noel Mustonen
Editor: Tambet Tasuja
Music: Jaan Pehk
Sales: The Film Sales Company, New York

Not rated, 89 minutes