Mouthpiece (Canada 2018)

Amy Nostbakken (left) and Norah Sadava, both as ‘Cassie’, in the store changing room trying to decide what to wear for the funeral

Here is an interesting venture. Mouthpiece is an anglophone Canadian film directed by a high profile Canadian director that has so far not achieved many distribution deals. In the current context someone had the idea to make it available for a limited period (October 1-4) free online outside Canada. I learned about this via a Tweet I think, mentioning <seventh-row.com> in Toronto.

Mouthpiece is an intriguing idea for a film, adapted from their own successful play by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava and directed by Patricia Rozema, who also worked on the script. Rozema’s first film, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing in 1987, drew attention and I remember her adaptation of Mansfield Park in 1999, the best Austen film for me. She has often tended to work with young women and her 2015 film Into the Forest featured Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood.

Nostbakken and Sadava play two ‘personalities/sides’ of the same character, Cassandra. I started watching the film without concentrating on the Introduction offered online and at first I took them to be a young lesbian couple. It was a few minutes before I realised my mistake. After a fun night out with one or two drinks, ‘Cassandra’ wakes up in her somewhat chaotic house to discover that she has missed ten calls from her mother and checking up she is dismayed to hear that her mother has died during the night. Cassandra’s mother Elaine (Maev Beaty) was a single parent for much of the time she was bringing up Cassie and her younger brother Danny and she was alone when she died of a stroke. Now the family (her sister Jane and Cassandra and Danny) must organise the funeral. We follow Cassandra over the next couple of days as she tries to come to terms with the situation and throughout she keeps remembering her time with her mother when she was a little girl. There are also more recent flashbacks to clashes with her mother as a ‘grown-up’. The biggest single issue for Cassie is that she wants to offer a eulogy at the funeral service but her aunt is not sure it’s a good idea and Cassie herself is in a turmoil about what she might say.

One of the musical numbers imagined by Cassie

The film’s origin as a play is fairly evident. Nostbakken also wrote the music for the film and there are some ‘staged’ musical numbers in various unlikely locations. I’m not sure about the device of the two different personalities. Sometimes one of the women seems to be the ‘visible’ Cassandra and on other occasions they switch roles (they are easily distinguished as the ‘tall Cassie’ and the ‘short Cassie’). The two personalities are not presented as opposites, i.e. not good/bad, happy/sad etc. – they are just two versions of the same individual representing the inner workings of Cassie’s brain. There is no logic to showing both of them as present in the same location but it is still an interesting proposition. As a narrative device it is rather like time travel in a speculative fiction – it works to serve the narrative and make interesting points as long as you don’t think too carefully about it.

I was struck as, in several Toronto-set Canadian films I’ve seen over the years, as to how Toronto can look like various US cities in American films but in Canadian films it always looks distinctly Canadian. I’m not sure how this works except that several streetscapes look familiar from other Canadian movies. As a film essentially about a mother-daughter relationship, the film has links to Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell (Canada 2012) and, in terms of Toronto locations, with the same director’s Take This Waltz (Canada 2011) – and with many others. Cassie’s mother was a writer and a musician – we see books by Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Ann-Marie MacDonald lying around her house and we watch her singing and playing guitar for a song which is clearly influenced by Joni Mitchell (but which is actually sung by Amy Nostbakken). Eventually we will realise that Elaine gave up her work to look after her children after her divorce and that Cassie’s career as a writer is something that both pleases her but triggers her own sense of something missing – and this in turn undermines the mother-daughter relationship.

The film crew comprised mainly women as Heads of Department, including cinematography by Catherine Lutes (in ‘Scope) and film editing by Lara Johnston. After I watched the film I was able to catch some of the Zoom Q&A with Patricia Rozema organised by Seventh Row. The most interesting point she made for me concerned the idea of the two characters playing the same woman which she explained and discussed very well. She suggested that though the experience of two personae in a dialogue with each other is understandable and applicable to both women and men, it is arguably better understood and ‘felt’ by women simply because of the pressure on women to think more carefully about how they present themselves to the world. Such is patriarchy (but Rozema didn’t use that term as I remember). This seems a sound argument. Clearly women also talk to their women friends about such feelings and emotions as well. Men of my generation rarely venture into such discourse. That doesn’t mean that I was put off the film, though I did find some scenes difficult to watch, I enjoyed the experience overall and congratulate the writers, director and performers. The internal struggles experienced at a funeral certainly rang true.

Seventh Row seems like a very enterprising organisation with an interest in many of the filmmakers I admire including Debra Granik, Chloe Zhao and others. I’ll look out for more opportunities to see Canadian films and look up Seventh Row’s resources.

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