Ellen Page stars as Sherry, a rootless teenager who joins SPARK, an organisation of young misfits seemingly dedicated to helping abused and drug-addicted kids get off the street|
by James Mottram
Ellen Page is virtually making a career out of playing disaffected teens - be it in Hard Candy(2005), Juno (2007) or Smart People (2008). And, with lip-ring, sulky pout and workman's boots all present and correct, it's exactly the role she plays in Mouth To Mouth, writer-director Alison Murray's feature debut. Released in 2006 in the US, one assumes that it's Page's subsequent success (an Oscar-nomination for Juno) that accounts for its belated arrival in the UK two years later.
That's not to say the film's without interest. At times as unconventional as the cult group at its heart, Murray's film is anything but everyday. At least, it is in the first half. Everything from the hedonistic scenes at an outdoor techno festival to the moment where a young kid somersaults into a rubbish-filled skip and spears his head on a nail, Mouth To Mouth is full of surprises in its early exchanges. That it doesn't live up to its initial promise, eschewing its anarchic beginnings for a more conventional outcome, is a great shame.
The film begins after Sherry (Page), aimlessly wandering the streets of Berlin, encounters a member of SPARK ('Street People Armed With Radical Knowledge'), an off-the-grid group aiming to offer "an alternative to mainstream bullshit". Joining up on impulse, Sherry hops in the battered SPARK van, now on its way to Portugal. Typically, while befriending fellow members Nancy (Brown) and Mad Ax (McCabe-Lokos), Sherry is not universally accepted - particularly by de facto leader Harry (Thal), who notes, "I doubt your commitment to this group."
While not exactly Charles Manson, it's the manipulative, cruel Harry that proves the unsettling force in SPARK, which is primarily dedicated to helping troubled street kids. She first clashes with him after telephoning her mother Rose (Wightman), contravening one of the many oblique rules the group has. Worse is to come when Rose, a hippie type herself who had her daughter in her teens, turns up and - to Sherry's horror - is accepted by Spark, and particularly by Harry.
What follows is about as alternative as shaving your head (which, incidentally, they all ritualistically do) as the group hang out, pick grapes for a living and generally mooch about. Unfortunately Murray also seems at a loss for what to do, with a story that dwindles in the final reel, as factions begin to splinter the gang and one act of cruelty leaves an indelible impression on all. Recalling George Orwell's proclamation in 'Animal Farm' that "some animals are more equal than others", it's a great pity that Murray's insights stretch no further than this.
Shot in gritty tones, scored with a fine choice of music, including tracks from The Stranglers and The Birthday Party, at least there can be no doubting the grubby authenticity on show. With Murray eliciting some fine performances from her cast, in particular Page and Wightman, who are highly convincing as estranged mother and daughter, it's impressive work for a first-time director. No doubt, she's one to watch for the future. But unlike Spark, a work as uneven as this was never destined for a cult following.
At times as muddled as SPARK's own motivations, Mouth To Mouth begins as an impressive expression of free wheeling youth culture. But as it bends towards a more conventional narrative, not even the impressive Page can resuscitate it.
Rating: 3 out of 5