Julie is a suburban housewife cleaning her living room one day when she finds strange and unexpected under the sofa: a used condom.
It’s clearly not Julie’s, which leaves only two other people in the house who could have used it: her 15-year-old daughter or her husband.
As she probes the question and its implications with her counselor, Julie’s discovery quietly but forcefully upends the tidy corners of her domestic existence, and no matter what the answer to her existential riddle is, the consequences could be unsettling and potentially catastrophic. Yet her urge for answers forces her on a collision with the hidden conflicts of her family and marriage… until it doesn’t.
Directed by David Rusanow, who adapted the script from a short comic by Chris Gooch, this quietly bracing, keenly observed drama hinges upon those unnerving discoveries that can change the course of a life and confront the self with its unfinished business. Yet while Julie’s dilemma is undeniably dramatic, the storytelling also mines a particularly dark, subtle humor, particularly around her awkward attempts to find out just who the used condom belonged to.
The story could be slanted towards the melodramatic, but the directorial hand at work exercises a discerning restraint on all levels of craft. Much of the film’s intelligence is expressed through the beautifully crafted, meticulous visuals. Rusanow not only directed but served as the film’s cinematographer, and the brilliantly composed images have a deft, precise sense of telling detail, from the beautiful yet lonely light that suffuses Julie’s living room to the strangely radiant gleam of the condom itself, as if piercing through the veil of Julie’s carefully composed but empty life.
The visual acuity is matched by the excellent performances of the cast, particularly by lead actor Dana Miltins as Julie, who is able to portray the disquiet of a woman whose life as she knows it may fall apart, as well as the almost naive hope that, somehow, this will all go away and work itself out nicely. When she finally confronts her husband, we see what wins out in the end — though Julie’s resolution isn’t without suspense, as well as its own hidden costs.
“Mother” is a domestic drama that achieves its intimacy not through over-explaining or abundant dialogue, but through a poetic, rigorous discernment for the perfect, telling detail, which puts us perfectly in the conflicted mind and soul of its protagonist.
With an almost forensic level of attention, “Mother” becomes a fascinating character portrait of a woman at an internal crossroads in her life: whether or not to find out the truth underneath the pristine surface of her home, or maintain the status quo. Julie’s choice isn’t a surprising one at the end, but with the film’s final lingering image, it’s one that will likely haunt her in the future — and haunt viewers who may recognize the pervasive power of fear and denial at work to maintain their own carefully cultivated surfaces of their own lives.