Sherry, the runaway North American teen at the center of Mouth to Mouth, a rough but boldly imaginative first feature by British-Canadian writer-director Alison Murray, has a round cherub’s face, a ring through her ripe lip, and a tomboy’s purposeful stride. We’ve seen her before: She’s the kind of raccoon-eyed lost soul who wanders through countless earnest indies and television specials on the young homeless. Yet watching Ellen Page work herself into the confusion of this angry girl, we see why the 19-year-old actress has gone so far, so fast in Hard Candy and the latest X-Men episode. An intensely direct performer, Page is also subtly adept at hinting at something held back, in this case through the merest tilt of a jaw that hints at a skeptical strength taking root within a girl who has little reason to trust anyone. For now, though, Sherry is all pugnacious vulnerability, as unprotected in her flimsy single-parent family as she is on the streets of Berlin, where we find her being seduced into the homeless-activist street collective SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge) by a bare-chested hunk named Tiger (August Diehl) with a killer grin. Though red flags abound from the get-go — Sherry’s aggrieved outburst on finding her backpack ransacked and her precious makeup stolen falls on derisive ears — it doesn’t take much to get her onboard, and soon she’s driving south in a clapped-out van with this small band of dopeheads and hookers, stopping to dumpster-dive, steal and beg on the streets of Europe’s cities on their way to a ravelike festival for fellow street kids in Spain.
Mouth to Mouth comes decked out with the kind of stylistic indulgences that often gum up powerful stories by young directors, especially those who, like Murray, have worked in music video. Schooled in dance and theater, she punctuates a mostly realist scenario with giddily choreographed sequences that verge unintentionally on rock-ballet parody and inspired in me a covert fit of the giggles. There’s also a hopelessly overdone figure in Sherry’s private drama — her mother, Rose (Natasha Wightman), a flower child whose development appears to have arrested somewhere in the early ’70s and who comes after Sherry, only to become a more gaga member of the collective than her daughter. Murray, who left home at age 15 to squat for several years in London, must have been miserably mothered herself to have dreamed up a pathetic fright like Rose, whose parenting skills make the be-your-best-friend mother in Mean Girls look like supermom, and whose serial betrayals of her only child strain all credibility. A stick figure, Rose protrudes discordantly from an otherwise impressive ensemble, astutely deployed by Murray to play out the implosion of a cult run by kids who can’t even run themselves.
If we all contain multitudes, they hang out all over in these young and restless misfits. Rushing from brash to hangdog to threatening and back again, these are?no more than forlorn children, as we glimpse in a teddy bear clipped to a backpack here, a thumb sucked in sleep there. Murray has developed a manically physical visual style to match their febrile energy as it spins repeatedly out of control, leaving both tragedy and an elated high in its wake. She isn’t out to rubbish groups like SPARK, which cleans runaways up, holds them to their methadone treatments and finds them seasonal work.
Still, I don’t quite buy her claim in the production notes that she has invented a group she’d want to join herself. For though Mouth to Mouth is indisputably a sympathetic view from the inside, its signal achievement is to observe the inner workings of a dictatorship set up by the group’s self-appointed guru, Harry (Eric Thal), a burly, clean-cut thug whose charisma masks a quietly reptilian ability to find and exploit his subjects’ weaknesses. Harry’s capacity for cruelty is bottomless and horrifying, but though Mouth to Mouth is a grim movie, it’s far from a hopeless one. For one thing, like most petty dictators, Harry is a sadist with his own tawdry secrets, and it’s he who inadvertently turns some of his followers — it may surprise you which, for there’s no simple correlation between inner and outer madness in this movie — from uneasily compliant flacks into activists. For another, Murray herself has lived to tell the tale, and she tells it with passion and panache.
MOUTH TO MOUTH | Written and directed by ALISON MURRAY | Produced by ANNE BERESFORD and JUDY TOSSELL | Released by Artistic License Films | At Laemmle’s Fairfax 3