A small but juicy slice of dysfunctional-family black comedy, “The Full Picture” has two heterosexual San Francisco couples enduring a highly turbulent visit from the men’s mother-from-hell. Adapted from his 2003 play “Big Mouth,” Jon Bowden’s feature directorial debut is ideally suited to the smallscreen; lack of star power and novel hook also tilt against bigscreen fortunes. But this is a proven festival crowd-pleaser that supportive local reviews could coax toward moderate arthouse payoff. Self-distribbed, the pic opens in several Bay Area locations this month.
First seen turning sugar-sweet to poisonously sour in a heartbeat when an airline employee doesn’t bump her to first class, Gretchen (Bettina Devin) is a woman of a certain age whose tasteful helmet coiffure probably isn’t her sole similarity to Nancy Reagan. She is visiting her “boys,” and surely it’s no coincidence that both chose a continental U.S. home base as distant as possible from their East Coast mom. Fifteen years earlier, their now-deceased father had left Gretchen; opinions differ, however, on just who was to blame.
The now-grown 30-something brothers also greatly differ in how that familial scar influenced subsequent relationships. Swaggering Hal (Joshua Hutchinson) is a constant philanderer whose marriage to acidic Beth (Heather Mathieson) survives only because they have a child, she has the approval of Gretchen (with whom he barely communicates), and they kind of enjoy their mutual hostility.
Mark (Daron Jennings), on the other hand, is desperate to believe Gretchen’s side of the story. The desperation shows, though, especially in his squirmy reluctance to take the marital plunge with supportive live-in girlfriend, Erika (Lizzie Ross), who hasn’t yet met Mom.
Erika is going all out to impress, cooking a lavish dinner, despite Mark’s tellingly casual insistence that they could simply eat out. Though he’s in complete denial, he subconsciously knows his mother’s passive-aggressive, soul-destroying venom.
While nothing here feels truly surprising or original, “The Full Picture” is smart enough to make Gretchen a relatively subtle monster. Its other characters likewise skirt one-dimensionality in an impressive mix of nuance and tartness. After some emotional fireworks, the closing note is rather beautiful in its low-key simplicity.
Thesps are absolutely first-rate. But equally impressive is first-time helmer Bowden’s filmic savvy. Assembly (especially his own editing, Clifford Traiman’s lensing and location usage) is precisely tuned, even if “Picture” never fully escapes a sense that it was first conceptualized for the stage.