Pudgy, owlish and vague around the edges, Mikey (Matt Boren) looks nothing like the son of an avant-garde filmmaker, let alone one as charismatically rumpled as Mikey’s father. Then again, maybe Mikey, a 30-ish Los Angeles resident who’s visiting his parents in New York City, looks exactly like the son of a triumphantly marginal artist — he’s a passive-aggressive rebel marooned in-flight from the Tribeca bohemia in which he was raised. Stubbornly ordinary and lacking in focus or ambition, Mikey, like many an unconscious mutineer, turns out to be umbilically, helplessly, tragicomically in thrall to home. Repeatedly deferring his return to Los Angeles and dodging voice-mail messages from the increasingly distressed wife (Dana Varon) he’s left to care for their new baby, he settles onto his platform bed and re-reads old hate letters to a former girlfriend or belts out appallingly adolescent lyrics on his guitar, emerging only for meals or outings to see a childhood friend (Piero Arcilesi) with whom he no longer has anything in common but their shared teenage love of the Clash (“Should I stay or should I go?”). That’s when he’s not crawling into bed to watch old movies with his mystified parents, who lie there like the grandparents in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, trying to contain their mounting alarm.
Set up for pathos, Momma’s Man is also a formal tease that both flirts with and renounces the personal essay. In his minimalist, indie-fringe way, director Azazel Jacobs (now there’s a name, taken from a Biblical devil of sorts, for a boho child) double-dares us to make something or nothing of the fact that he cast his own parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, an experimental filmmaker and a painter, in the film, and shot it in their cluttered apartment, a Miss Havisham state of chaos filled with books, disembodied dolls’ heads and the moving parts that fuel Dad’s abstract creative impulses. Unlike his shlubby protagonist, who swigs sherry to get drunk enough for a feeble suicide attempt, Azazel Jacobs is tall and lanky with a safety pin in his face, has no kids and is a successful young indie filmmaker carving out a more accessible niche than that occupied by his resolutely marginal dad.
Momma’s Man has a loosely linear narrative, but Jacobs is his father’s son, dazzled by the way refracted light plays on Mikey’s forlorn features in a mirror, or by the shaving cream with which he lathers his entire face. Still, there’s no easy way to be the child of a legend in his field, especially one as intense as Dad, or Ken, or both. Accosted by his dad to witness one of the interplays of light and movement that delight him, Mikey wordlessly lays a restraining hand on his father’s shoulder, then quickly moves on to another feeding session with mommy, who’s a whole other piece of the Oedipal triangle. Is Flo Jacobs in life a smother who plies her roly-poly son with comfort food at every turn, implores him to wrap up warm on his occasional forays outside the womb, or takes him on her lap to caress him back to his senses? How you respond to her may depend on the kind of maternal luggage you’re hauling around yourself. Like Mikey, I felt as though I were choking — at least when I wasn’t feeling like swatting him away so I could climb into her lap myself.
Momma’s Man taps into that ambivalence, and those moments when all of us long to flee adulthood and sink back into being our parents’ beloved baby birds, whether or not we ever were in the first place. But if anyone is being judged here, it’s Mikey: No one looks attractive trying to force his or her way back into the nest, and there comes a time when every mother worth her salt has had it with dispensing oceanic feeling. When Mikey segues from evasion into outright whoppers, he’s in for a gently bracing surprise that draws a line and brings him to the bittersweet recognition that Mom and Dad have earned a joint life of their own, to which he now has only visitation rights. Which makes Momma’s Man, in its lovingly twisted way, a valentine to great parenting.
MOMMA’S MAN | Written and directed by AZAZEL JACOBS | Produced by HUNTER GRAY and ALEX ORLOVSKY | Released by Kino International | At Sunset 5, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5
Web exclusive: Read an interview with Azazel and Ken Jacobs at www.laweekly.com/movies.