Two Mothers is, curiously enough, the first film I have ever seen at Sundance. That’s right. Although I have been a professional film critic for many years, and even an editor who repeatedly sends other people to cover the Sundance Film Festival for CraveOnline, 2013 is the very first year I have actually been able to attend the vaunted bastion of independent cinema personally. What would my first Sundance experience be like, I wondered, besides rather nippy? “Conflicting” is the answer I have come up with, and it’s all thanks to a little film about two mothers, friends since childhood, who take each other’s sons as lovers, and for the most part are pretty cool about it.
That’s… different. Let’s go with “different,” shall we? Because Anne Fontaine’s Two Mothers is a strange beast of a film, concocted of great performances and two-dimensional performances, fascinating character studies and heavy-handed melodrama. And, it must be noted, a central plot that seems custom-designed to either skeeve you out, elicit nervous titters or, perhaps at best, make you go, “That’s… different.”
Take a moment to imagine, since its very concept comes part and parcel with preconceived notions of morality, social acceptability and even tawdry erotica, what Two Mothers probably plays like. Robin Wright and Naomi Watts play best friends since childhood, whose closeness remains undissipated deep into their forties. Their sons, who about the same age, are both Greek god surfer types, charming enough, but also simple enough to justify distanced objectification by older women, who could perhaps understanably find their non-threatening emotional purity and six-packs carved from fleshlike diamonds alluring, at least in the abstract. One of the boys, Xavier Samuel (Anonymous), puts the moves on Robin Wright during a difficult time in her marriage. She succumbs, and her own son, James Frecheville (Animal Kingdom), decides to seduce Naomi Watts in turn.
“How could you!” “You’re a monster!” “He’s only a child!” “We’re horrible people!” None of these expressions get any screen time to speak of in Two Mothers, for instead, after a brief bout of soul-searching, both Penn and Watts decide that what they’re doing is too satisfying, and supposedly harmless, to stop. A mutually agreed upon, non-judgmental relationship between the two couples continues for years until the perhaps inevitable threat of the young men moving on rears its uncomfortable head.
What keeps Two Mothers from being a John Waters-esque examination of unapologetic sleaziness, or a grotesque morality play, or even pornography, is the film’s effective dedication to explaining how, for god’s sake, this sort of thing could have happened. (The film’s director insists that, although Two Mothers is adapted from a short story by Doris Lessing, that short story was also based on a true story.) This is neither technically abuse – since all of the participants are of adult age – nor is it entirely forgiven. The families in Two Mothers exist outside the social conventions we take for granted, leading to a disturbing and even occasionally exotic blur of familial roles. Watts and Penn are, frankly, not very good “mothers,” focusing all their attentions on each other, even when Watts’ husband dies and her then-young son needed guidance. By the time their kids are old enough to be treated as equals, all semblance of matriarchy has vanished: all four of them all hang out together, get drunk together, use each others’ first names and, openly, playfully, discuss sexual matters, to the extent that, by the time the affairs begin, the traditional family unit is so nonexistent that this hardly seems like a significant shift in the status quo.
Making matters more complex is the fact that, for all intents and purposes, both women were – by their children’s own admission – equally mother figures to both of their children. Although the physical definition of incest is never portrayed, the emotional version comes across very clearly. Even though, again, neither woman seemed particularly matriarchal, the clearly conveyed notion that this is the only kind of mothering either man has ever known, making it explicit that, again for all intents and purposes, they’re crossing a thick moral line that neither Watts nor Penn can adequately conceive since, again, the never seem to have felt like mothers in the first place. That even the men in the relationships feel no guilt or anxiety over these developments only further solidifies Two Mothers as either perverse or just shockingly unexpected, depending on how willing you are to explore its strange questions.
Two Mothers is certainly daring in its portrayal of extremely unconventional romance, allowing itself to engage in the eroticism, alienation, mystery and even fair judgment of the events that spiral from this potential “Jerry Springer” episode, but it’s so damned sincere that its own sincerity comes into question. Two Mothers can’t resist Nicholas Sparks-worthy over-longing glances and foregone conclusion “should we or should we not” seductions, and its tendency to allow these sequences to evolve naturally into conventional moralizing, only to divert suddenly and unsettlingly into a bold acceptance of the boundaries being crossed, resulted in repeated gales of nervous laughter from the audience, who either refused to key into the film’s unusual wavelength or were simply too weirded out by the events unfolding on-screen to do anything else. I’d be judgmental about that reaction, but damn it, so much of Two Mothers unfolds like a sledgehammer of either art house or trash dime-store sensibilities that the tendency to overplay all the understated character beats becomes unmistakably comical. Every time Xavier Samuel or James Frecheville take off their shirts, Two Mothers luxuriates on their frame beyond merely justifying their sexual appeal, and sinks deep into a quagmire of ridiculous David DeCoteau fetishization.
Robin Wright and Naomi Watts do amazing things with what they’ve got here, and Wright in particular seems masterful at balancing the strange eroticism and emotional conflict on display, although it probably helps that, unlike Watts, she has a richer subplot to explain her characters’ actions. Sadly, their hunky male co-stars are comparatively out of their depth, embodying the macho yet hairless allure of their roles without really contributing much beyond that, except to overextend their inner turmoil to CW soap opera degrees. But if you can choke back the giggles, and watch Two Mothers for the uneasy but uncompromising look at sexual wrongness that it is, and if you can get past the ickiness of the concept long enough to see what’s really being explored as the characters lay waste to preconceived notions of intimacy, you may find some seriously fascinating food for thought. Choking back the giggles, sadly, would seem to be the hard part.
And check out these other reviews from Sundance 2013:
Who is Dayani Cristal?; starring Gael Garcia Bernal
Austenland; starring Keri Russell
Emmanuel and the Truth About Fishes; starring Kaya Scodelario
Don Jon's Addiction; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Scarlett Johansson
Virtually Heroes; produced by Roger Corman
Breathe In; starring Felicity Jones and Guy Pierce
Inequality for All; featuring Robert Reich
Blue Caprice; starring Isaiah Washington and Tim Blake Nelson
Fill the Void; starring Renana Raz
Running From Crazy; featuring Mariel Hemingway
Wrong Cops; starring Steve Little
Hell Baby; starring Rob Corddry
Stoker; starring Nicole Kidman
Escape from Tomorrow; shot without permits at Disney World
Before Midnight; starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy
We Are What We Are; starring Ambyr Childers and Julia Garner
Afternoon Delight; starring Kathryn Hahn and Juno Temple
Ass Backwards; starring Casey Wilson and June Diane Raphael
I Used to Be Darker; starring Deragh Campbell
Magic Magic; starring Juno Temple
Prince Avalanche; starring Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch
Sweetwater; starring January Jones, Jason Isaacs and Ed Harris
Crystal Fairy; starring Michael Cera and Gaby Hoffman
S-VHS; sequel to found footage horror film V/H/S
Lovelace; starring Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard and Sharon Stone
The East; starring Brit Marling and Alexander Saarsgaard
After Tiller, about abortion doctor George Tiller
Citizen Koch, about The Koch Brothers and campaign finance contributions
Gangs of Wasseypur, a 5 1/2 hour Indian crime epic
In Fear, a horror movie set entirely within a car
The Rambler, starring Dermot Mulroney
What They Don't Talk About When They Talk About Love, about a school for the blind and deaf
Upstream Color; starring Shane Carruth and Amy Seimetz