By Rachel Thibault
Momma’s Man – 2008 – dir. Azazel Jacobs
Momma’s Man (Jacobs, 2008) is such an informal, simple title for a film that is anything but. It’s both modest and unassuming in both scope and visual style, but moves beyond the stereotype its title suggests. The film is a moving, complex ode to how we negotiate, define, and attempt to return to that place we call home.
Written and directed by rising indie director Azazel Jacobs (The GoodTimes Kid, No One Needs to Know) the film concerns the plight of Mikey (Matt Boren) who leaves his young wife and child behind in LA to make a stop at his parents’ cramped artists’ loft while on a business trip in New York. Soon, Mikey finds himself lulled, hypnotized by the familiarities of his boyhood home; the intimacy of the tiny loft crawl space, the sacred objects of his youth, and the soothing (if sometimes comically smothering) dotings by his mother. One night turns into several nights, and several lies to parents and his worried wife later, Mikey becomes incapacitated by nostalgia.
Jacobs introduces the viewer to his boyhood home, which doubles as the current and long-time abode of his parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs, now parents to Mikey. This space is cluttered and claustrophobic, but also enchanting and mesmerizing by its idiosyncratic piles of books, found objects, oddly placed mirrors, precariously positioned objects on tall industrial bookshelves. And while such clutter would make many folks uneasy—Martha Stewart would cringe—the space speaks of a lack of pretension and conformity. This space reminds us, too, of the different path Mikey has taken from his parents; he’s followed a more traditional job path, which is part of what he is running from. At his parents loft, we imagine that growing up, anything was possible, and acceptable; the space suggests not only the comforts of family but also the freedom from society’s definitions of success.
What’s striking about this scenario is its universality. At some point in our lives, return is inevitable; the need, desire, or obligation to visit a childhood home, friends, or relatives for holidays and reunions surfaces and becomes a common device for reminiscent narratives. And while many films engage with such return, it’s not often that this limbo becomes a film’s primary subject; rarely does a film linger to an almost excruciating extent on the minutiae of a man’s slow regression to a much younger self (without the bathroom humor many other films resort to). The press photo for Momma’s Man, in which we see Mikey in bed watching TV with his parents, tells all, and its comforts invite us to join them there.
At first glance there seems to be an obligatory moment of adolescent reverie. Mikey surrounds himself with old lyrics, comic books, even a photo album full of Garbage Pail Kids stickers. However, It’s not about this pop culture reminisce but being unable to face your own life. Mikey’s lounging around includes some active moments—he calls a former girlfriend for a lunch date, and meets a friend who still lives with his parents (who, tellingly, are surprised that Mikey had the social skills to achieve adulthood via marriage and fatherhood.) But after a few forays into the real world, Mikey faces the steps of his parent loft and cannot budge beyond the top. It’s scary out there; in less capable hands we’d think of Mikey as pathetic and beyond help, but the film’s meditative qualities prepare us for this exact moment.
One reviewer suggested that Ken and Flo Jacobs form the “heart” and center of the film; indeed they are Mikey’s center of gravity. Ken Jacobs, (who also happens to be a revered member of the American avant-garde) sagely observes Mikey’s every move and is the first to notice that something is terribly wrong with his son. Flo Jacobs, as the mother who can’t stand to see her child suffer even for a moment, constantly offers physical affection and nourishment, even at the most inopportune moments (coffee and tea are potential draws to get Mikey out of a locked bathroom). More significantly, these parents acknowledge Mikey’s pain in moments not with dialogue or motion but through stillness and engaged presence.
It takes a long time for Mikey to understand that he is merely an interloper in the rich worn-in lives of his parents. Yet his recognition is also ours, as the film’s parting shot resonates with Mikey’s new knowledge of where adulthood and this space called home can co-exist.