“Have you ever had to watch your parents get old?” Mikey asks his wife over the phone. This line stands out as the most indelible line of dialogue in 2008. It is at once as simple as it sounds – meaning nothing more nor less – yet has the power to evoke a broad range of personal responses in the viewer. It’s also the closest thing that writer/director Azazel Jacobs offers as an explanation for Mikey’s extended visit to his parents in New York, Ken and Flo Jacobs (the real life parents of the filmmaker), that only seems to extend further and further. Not only into the future – he can never drag himself back to his wife and child in California – but also into the past, as he digs through boxes filled with remnants of his youth, reconnects (albeit superficially) with old friends, and inhabits his childhood home (actually shot in the family loft where Azazel grew up).
There have been many films made about “growing up” as well as “growing old,” – yet comparatively few films (if any) have been made about bearing witness to the aging process. Momma’s Man isn’t so much about Mikey’s arrested development, or even his uncertainty about fatherhood, as it is about the possibility of his parents’ mortality, and his own psychological and emotional response to it. Jacobs never gives us a concrete reason as to Mikey’s reason for visiting in the first place – his mother may very well be sick, or it could just as easily be the product of his overactive paranoia. It is this fear that sets into place his own regression, as though he is retreating to some former state in which his parents held supreme authority not only over him, but also their own lives.
Ironically, it is the parents who seem to be the most stable. Fittingly, scenes of them working together are exquisitely and calmly composed, whereas most of Mikey’s scenes are noticeably handheld and unbalanced. Jacobs alternates penetrating close-ups with claustrophobic long shots that emphasize the cluttered loft apartment, and inquisitive moving shots that explore the vast array of sights and oddities that are to be found in the home. The voluminous labyrinth of boxes, crates, ladders, pulleys, and sheets that separate the loft into livable spaces – not to mention father Ken’s collection of eccentric, mutated wind-up toys and other oddball gadgets and toys – are intimately caressed by Jacbos’ reticent, curious camera, which is equally attentive to slight but significant human gestures. Ken touching Flo’s hand at the dinner table, an affection sign for her to stop offering her son food and to start finding out his problems; Mikey’s drunken pause at the top of the stairs when he illogically reaches out to a plastic bag for balance; an old friend, recently released from jail, alternating doing push-ups and singing along to the Indigo Girls while he tries to sweat out drugs from his system. Moments such as these allow us to laugh at the humanity of the characters, while still appreciating their desperation.
Azazel Jacobs’ subtlety falters only with one heavy-handed symbol—Mikey’s inability to “leave” his parents apartment. As his anxiety increases, he finds himself physically incapable of walking down the stairs. Its obviousness threatens the sincerity and ambiguity of his condition by reducing it to something completely literal. In a film built on unspoken exchanges and naturalistic digressions, this reliance on symbolic scenes seems out-of-place and unnecessary. But this proves to be the exception, rather than the rule: instead, Momma’s Man hits its stride with an understated stream of dinners, dishes, and excavated teenage love/hate songs that are so tenderly and sincerely bad that I am tempted to believe in their authenticity. On their own such narrative wanderings mean relatively little, yet that aforementioned, memorable line of dialogue haunts even the emptiest moment. It’s asking a lot for an entire movie to ride on a single piece of dialogue – too much, in some ways – yet Azazel Jacobs is not being at all coy or clever. His earnestness is absolute and unshakable. Momma’s Man may wear its heart on its sleeve, but it is also happens to be the most heartfelt film of the year, and where most filmmakers would embrace a safe sense of detachment, Jacobs dares to be vulnerable.