Motherhood (2019) - Marianna Palka
Motherhood (released as Egg in the US) is a comedy about two old art school friends who, having not seen each other since then, have arranged a reunion of sorts when one of the friends is visiting New York. Tina, a conceptual artist lives in a New York apartment in a part of town that is less than desirable. She lives with Wayne, her husband, who, as the film hilariously informs us, doesn't define himself through his work. Whilst traveling to New York, Karen, who is eight months pregnant, has been invited for lunch with her husband Don.
Once they meet the film unfolds over a single afternoon, in a predominantly single location (Tina's apartment) as the couples passive-aggressively discuss opposing the conflicting life choices, with a specific focus on a woman's desire and need to be a mother.
Marianna Palka, who directs, and Risa Mickenberg, who scripts, have conjured up a magnificently funny and scathing attack on preconceived notions of motherhood, the patriarchy and modern living. The five characters (Tina, Wayne, Karen, and Don are joined in the final act by Kiki - more on her later) are all deplorably unlikeable. Pretentious, conceited, self-centered, obnoxious and infuriatingly judgemental, it's a testament to the directing, writing and the cast that watching these characters passive-aggressively bicker, undermine and roll their eyes at each other over the course of this afternoon is such a pleasure.
When the couples meet there is an all too recognisable awkwardness of long ago friends meeting up. Tina, played with superb self-importance by Alysia Reiner (Orange is the New Black), is keen to project her misgivings and condescending opinions about the archaic nature of motherhood onto the eight-month pregnant Karen (Christina Hendricks, Mad Men, Drive), who is brilliantly navigates insecurities about her marriage, annoyance at her friend and the uncomfortableness of being pregnant. I lost count of the number of times she needed to go to the toilet.
The film's strength stems from the clash of views and the deep resentments and insecurities and how they surface throughout the story. We learn that Tina thinks the usual way to have a baby is outdated, and so in a desire to give Wayne a child, they have elected to have a surrogate; Kiki, who wants nothing more than to be pregnant. For Tina, the whole enterprise is forming the centrepiece of an upcoming conceptual art project about motherhood and parenting. Her brutal honesty is met with disdain by Karen and her aloof, disinterested and arrogant husband Bob, who is more interested in the baseball game than getting to know Karen's old friend.
But as the story unfolds Palka and Mickenberg begin to unpick and stress test both the ideas and beliefs each character has about motherhood and parenting as well as the attempts of the men to restore or reinstate some semblance of the patriarchy. We get to see the argument of the film's central premise from the three women's point of view. The clash of opinions is fascinating and the depth of character in Tina, Karen, and Kiki, and the measured performances from the actresses elevate the film.
At one point, Kiki explains the concept of the stages of womanhood, which is as funny as it is depressing. The very idea that women are defined by various stages of womanhood, all tied to their capacity to provide love (and children) to men diminishes a woman's role in society and feeds directly into Tina's motivations for her desire to throw off and reject these notions regardless of how ill-conceived and facile they are. Similarly, Karen, who at eight months pregnant can't help but feel slightly trapped in her life choices and future. The very thing that is supposed to make her feel more feminine is that which traps her in a cycle she has no power to break out of. Despite her condemnation of Tina's views, you sense she can appreciate the sentiment, as, despite the wonders of motherhood, it's as much as a prison as a liberation.
If the film falters it's in its final act when the ideas explored begin to collapse under their own weight. Tina's worldview struggles to co-exist with the realities of being in a loving relationship, with a husband who has wildly different opinions about their impending child - and the surrogate. Equally, Karen is forced to face the reality of her marriage and is given a chance to directly address some hard truths, but retreats undermining the integrity of the feminist ideas explored or perhaps their complexities. All of which seems to be the point. The problem with theories and ideas, the films seems to be saying, is that when they come face to face with reality and the consequences of making, and committing to decisions based on beliefs they often fall short.
Motherhood is a delightful comedy with rich characters, excellent performances, a tight, insightful script and keen direction. If it all gets a little muddled and unfocused by the film's conclusion its been one laugh out loud journey getting there, and there is unique pleasure is seeing creative talent like this explore ideas and themes such as these.