by Rob Vaux, published on May 27, 2006|
Director Alison Murray finds herself caught between two overlapping and not necessarily harmonious themes in Mouth to Mouth, a semiautobiographical story about the perils of iconoclasm. Beginning as a Catcher in the Rye-style journey of adolescence, it eventually morphs into a cautionary anti-cult manifesto. Both halves are interesting, but they never find an entirely acceptable convergence. The film kicked around overseas for a couple of years, arriving in the States thanks in part to the on-screen presence of reluctant It Girl Ellen Page. It certainly deserves a wider release, for Murray's deeply personal attachment to her material lends it honesty and poignancy. But technical meandering and a frustrating lack of focus dog its better elements, leaving a fascinating but badly disjointed movie in their wake.
Luckily, Page's presence helps matters considerably. As Sherry, the disaffected teenager who serves as the director's surrogate, she resonates with the wounded truths of adolescence, creating an empathetic figure who nonetheless has a lot of growing up to do. Make no mistake: this actress is the real deal. Where she goes next is anyone's guess (given her vocal skepticism of mainstream Hollywood, it could be anywhere), but with three performances on U.S. screens in just under six weeks (the other two in Hard Candy and X-Men: The Last Stand), she has thrown one hell of a coming-out party. Sherry's drifting search for identity forms the heart of Mouth to Mouth, a quest as painful as it is unformed. Fleeing a life of suburban homogeneity and a flaky mother (Natasha Wightman) who acts more like a pal than a parent, she finds herself destitute on the streets of an unnamed German city. There, she falls under the influence of a group called SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge), whose leader Harry (Eric Thal) preaches a new kind of social radicalism. SPARK wishes to help the homeless and poverty-stricken, but not from a position of authority. Rather, it will approach the problem from within the homeless community, using direct personal experience to mitigate the aid it provides. It also gives members the tools to hold their own against the pernicious influences of the mainstream, facilitating a form of "intellectual self-defense," as Harry puts it. As nebulous as it sounds, the philosophy proves intoxicating to Sherry. The group gives her a sense of belonging while keeping her separate from the societal hypocrisy she despises. Harry is inhumanly charismatic (a lily that Murray gilds by leaving him perennially shirtless), and his followers are all young and desperate for a lifeline. None of them can say no to a perceived path to fulfillment... even if they never bother to read the fine print.
During these early scenes, Murray adopts a free-form, almost improvisational approach, relying on her background in choreography to infuse cast and camera alike with striking visual dynamics. There are long scenes of actors moving expressively against their surroundings and each other -- arresting, but with a tendency to wander from the point. Beneath it, the key details of the drama grow muddled. SPARK's purpose is never fleshed out, the zeal it inspires visible but rarely justified. The characters are hard to like, which buoys the film's potent authenticity but leaves us struggling to care about their plight. The few moments of genuine plot-driven drama are well staged and heartbreaking, marked by a young boy's sudden death and the accompanying realization that SPARK's chosen lifestyle has tough consequences. But they never quite connect with the film's more abstract elements, leaving distressing lapses in Mouth to Mouth's thematic coherence.
The second half tightens the screws considerably, making a disorienting break from the opening scenes but also bringing their purpose into clear focus. SPARK eventually makes its way to a Spanish villa, which Harry passes off as a haven and which his ragtag band embraces with gusto. Soon, they're cheerfully toiling in the vineyards and engaging in "group bonding" exercises designed to enforce the will of the collective. The circumstances grow harsher and harsher: a viable elite forms within the group and dissent is treated with grim and seemingly arbitrary punishments. We can sense where it's going long before heads start being shaved, as Harry's "leadership" slides into narcissism and humiliating psychological torment. Murray is spot-on with the details here, revealing life within the de facto cult in stark, eerily plausible terms. There are no silly clichés about wild-eyed fanatics or chanting moonies. The situation comes slowly and gradually, almost before its victims are aware of it. Sherry's growing skepticism charts its progress -- how did they go from social revolution to picking grapes 12 hours a day? -- but the group's increasingly extreme behavior arrives in incremental and seemingly reasonable steps. The film's early murkiness aids in this impression, keeping Harry's manipulation hidden from his victims, and leaving a viable (if far from perfect) cinematic vision in its wake.
The dark strength of that final act, coupled with Murray's heartfelt passion, carries Mouth to Mouth more or less across the finish line. As an expression of nonconformity, it benefits immeasurably from a personal perspective, even as that same perspective keeps it from delivering its message the way it should. It's a supremely mixed bag, and its limited release suggests a niche appeal at best, but for all the flaws, its grit and honesty have genuine strength. Hollywood loves to hold up rugged individualists as paragons of virtue, unaware that their corporate methodology makes a lie of the very image they wish to promote. Murray, operating well into the fringes here, confronts the dangerous flip side to that equation, convincingly showing how the new boss can differ so little from the old. Few movies dare to really explore that idea, preferring simpler messages and more readily identifiable problems. For all its liabilities, Mouth to Mouth never quite derails, though it often comes distressingly close. Indeed, the flaws make a strangely fitting validation for the movie's ethos, embracing the consequences of Murray's iconoclasm as sharply as the story she endeavors to tell. Right or wrong, it's there to see, affirming its ideology in broad messy strokes. It doesn't make for a perfect experience, but at least it's an honest one... and a film about finding your own way wouldn't feel as truthful if it didn't get lost a little bit en route.