'Mouthpiece': Film Review

Crucial Things, First Generation Films
The central conceit wears thin quickly.
5/31/2019

A young woman prepares for her mother's funeral in Patricia Rozema's dark comedy in which the lead character is played by two actresses.

Everyone feels a bit conflicted at times. But the central character in the new film by Patricia Rozema (I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, Mansfield Park) takes it to extremes. Cassandra, a 30-year-old writer reeling emotionally after the death of her mother, is one hot mess. Especially since she's being played simultaneously by two actresses, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava.

Mouthpiece is based on a play by the two lead performers, and its stage origins are amply evident in the profusion of arch dialogue and artificial-feeling situations. But Rozema has also opened up the proceedings via extensive location shooting throughout a wintry Toronto and stylistic devices including surreal musical interludes.

The story begins with Cassandra waking up after a drunken night and discovering that she's received a series of increasingly incoherent phone messages left by her mother Elaine (Maev Beaty). She soon finds out that her mother has died suddenly from a stroke while sitting at the kitchen table. Although her aunt (Paula Boudreau) and other relatives would prefer otherwise, Cassandra insists on writing the eulogy. She also sets about performing various tasks associated with the funeral, including shopping for food, clothes and a casket. The latter inspires one of the most memorable scenes, in which Cassandra explores "eco-friendly" options and, at one point, lies down in a casket in the showroom.

During the long day, Cassandra also takes time out for some therapeutic sex with an old boyfriend, which proves awkward since one version of her is attempting to do the deed while the other is watching intently and verbally commenting on her performance. "Shut up, I gotta focus!" the copulating Cassandra yells to her counterpart.

There are also frequent flashbacks depicting Cassandra's earlier years and often strained interactions with her mother, a writer/editor who put her promising career on hold to raise Cassandra and her younger brother (Jake Epstein) and was never able to resume it successfully. There's also much discussion about an apparently upsetting encounter that occurred on Christmas Eve, just before her mother's death, an episode that is eventually revealed in the final minutes to less than galvanizing effect.

The film is notable more for its unusual conceit than as a serious exploration of grief and familial relationships, often reduced here to such banal observations as "I never saw mom eat a French fry."  But the novelty of the premise quickly wears thin, lacking the psychological richness and humor of, say, Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, which employed a similar gimmick. As played by Nostbakken and Sadava, who wrote the screenplay with director Rozema, the two incarnations of the central character are sometimes shown moving and speaking in synchronized fashion. At other times they act like two completely separate, and not necessarily harmonious beings, at one point even getting into a physical brawl.  The actresses play off each other entertainingly, but to gradually diminishing returns, making one suspect that the piece worked far more effectively onstage.

Production/Distribution: Crucial Things, First Generation Films
Cast: Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava, Maev Beaty, Taylor Belle Puterman, Ari Cohen, Jake Epstein, Paula Boudreau, Jess Salgueiro
Director: Patricia Rozema
Screenwriters: Patricia Rozema, Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava
Producers: Christina Piovesan, Patricia Rozema, Jennifer Shin
Executive producers: Alex Brisbourne, Angela Brisbourne, Martha McCain, Kathleen Ramsay, Martha Ramsay, Maria Martin Stanley
Director of photography: Catherine Lutes
Production designer: Zazu Myers
Editor: Lara Johnson
Composer: Amy Nostbakken
Costume designer: Marissa Schwartz, mara Zigler
Casting: Deirdre Bowen, Christopher Richards

91 minutes