Despite the long cinematic history of complicated mother-child relationships that have been presented on screen, no one has gone about it in quite the way writer/director David Gutnik has in “Materna,” a fascinating anthology of tales that intersect on a New York City subway that offers an impressive showcase for a quartet of talented actresses – and writers, in the case of Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina, who pull double duty – to work out the ways children are shaped by their mothers and seek to break free of their influence. It is an unrelated character that brings the women together, a belligerent hothead (Sturgill Simpson) harassing them as they’ve all got other weightier things on their mind, with the screeching of wheels against the tracks frequently deployed to reflect the tension and all the film really needs as evidence of the lack of trust in the opposite sex that makes the difficult relationships to their own mothers all the more torturous.
There’s an outlier in the collection in Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), a well-to-do conservative whose toxic views threaten to rub off on her son (Jake Katzman), but “Materna” is at its most compelling when revealing the subtle significant impressions that have put certain inescapable boundaries on its lead characters’ attitudes and lives, with Gutnik shrewdly cutting across a variety of cultures to get at a shared experience with the world gradually opening up in terms of the sequence of the stories. You never actually see anyone else in the frame during the opening chapter involving Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil), a woman bedeviled by calls from her mother with reminders that her biological clock is ticking and in her thirties, she should start consider freezing her eggs. Jean isn’t about to give her mom the satisfaction of knowing that she indeed has become pregnant, particularly when she’s unsure of bringing another life into the world when she’s felt so inhibited in hers with the expectations of who she’s supposed to be that she can’t bring herself to go outside and largely participates in the world virtually. Sheil is at her flinty best carrying more than a potential child in the segment.
The two other chapters deal in their own ways with the absence of a father, one who walked away in the case of Mona (Jade Eshete), who is left to work out the fallout with her religiously devout mother who keeps her distance as well by placing her faith in between them, and another who died in the case of Perizad (Assol Abdullina), who returns home to Kyrgyzstan to comfort her grandmother and her mother, the latter of whom she holds slightly responsible for his death for reasons that make themselves known. Relocating the production from New York to Central Asia isn’t the only way that you’re surprised that Gutnik really goes there, finding inventive scenarios for his characters to express their frustrations as Mona, an actress, finds it challenging to play essentially herself as she’s tasked with an audition that intersects with her mother’s trying texts, and Perizad may keep her feelings close to the vest, but after the film presents a number of other relationships where characters are unable to share a physical space and employing technology to mitigate the risk of confrontation, her willingness to make the trip to see her relatives is statement enough.
Ironically, “Materna” makes such strong connections to show how fragile they are, particularly provocative in exploring generational attitudes that are undone by time for the young as they harden for the old and when there is an inextricable biological bond, what freedom looks like as outside influences take hold. With strong performances to lean on, Gutnik takes bold swings that aren’t all successful, but mostly are effective and always admirable in considering relationships and characters as dynamically as it creates them, and in examining various permutations of family, results in something familiar emotionally and refreshingly and entirely unfamiliar narratively.