French-born, NYU Tisch-educated director Vladimir de Fontenay’s “Mobile Homes” is born out of a paradox: Inspired by the uniquely American sight of a prefab home rolling down the highway, its very existence owes to the foreign helmer’s naïveté. Whereas locals might take such an image for granted, de Fontenay was compelled to make a film about it (“Mobile Homes” is actually the second time he’s done so, following a 2013 short of the same name). Almost immediately, however, his ignorance becomes a liability, resulting in a squalid and deeply condescending portrait of what this outsider imagines lower-class Americana to be.
Although English actress Imogen Poots isn’t American either, she nearly saves the exercise by bringing a shred of human warmth to her portrayal of a flagrantly unfit mother who drags her 8-year-old son through a host of illegal schemes in a desperate effort to put a roof over their heads. She’s a wolverine-tough scrapper who begins the movie looking down on what some might call “trailer trash” and winds up trying to steal one of those prefab homes for herself.
Until such time, Ali seems to be competing for either “world’s worst mother’ or John Waters’ “filthiest person alive” title. Whether clipping her toenails on the dashboard of a beat-up old van, passing out during hotel-pool sex or licking the gunk from a rooster’s crap-covered eyeball, Poots’ performance recalls the commitment that Divine showed in scooping up and devouring fresh dog excrement on camera — not that “Mobile Homes” shares even an iota of “Pink Flamingos’” renegade sense of humor.
This is a dour and deeply unpleasant film that wears its gritty realism as a badge of honor, while failing to recognize the motivations that explain such behavior in reality, which makes him neither an attentive journalist nor a particularly good storyteller (at least not yet). What might have saved “Mobile Homes” is the lived-in texture of authenticity that made last year’s “American Honey” such a whirlwind revelation (to name just one example in which a foreigner zeroed in on the alarming nihilism and opportunistic disregard that she observed among characters of a similar age and class). If anything, “Mobile Homes” feels more like Arnold’s Oscar-winning short, “Wasp,” in which a welfare mom fed her crying infant sugar straight out of the bag, failing to notice when a dangerous insect crawled into the baby’s open mouth.
Poot’s Ali may be a young mother, but seeing her in action, we can’t help but recognize that she is in many ways still a child herself, oblivious to consequences and concerned primarily with satisfying her immediate whims and desires, often at the expense of her son Bone (Frank Oulton). This was a popular theme in Cannes this year, from Andrey Zvyagintsev’s missing-child drama “Loveless” to Sean Baker’s missing-parent rejoinder “The Florida Project” (which handily upstaged “Mobile Homes” in the festival’s Director’s Fortnight section). Opposite Baker’s wild, sugar-rush revelation, “Mobile Homes” feels like something of an endurance test, as we squirm through a series of bad parenting decisions, staged against frosty Canadian backdrops and grungily lensed by DP Benoit Soler.
Without money to feed her son, Ali teaches him to “dine and dash,” while her no-good boyfriend (Callum Turner, utterly convincing) teaches him cockfighting, further relying on the kid to sell drugs to the shady characters who show up to watch the illegal activity. It’s heartbreaking to see someone’s childhood exploited like this, calling to mind the orphaned street urchins trained to pick pockets and beg for change in Third World countries (though perhaps a local would be best suited to understand the nuances of that story as well). But this is America, of course, and we must confront the fact that children do get left behind — although to receive this lesson in a film that’s neither entertaining nor enlightening begs the question what exactly de Fontenay set out to achieve.
Certainly, he has given Poots the sort of demanding mama-bear role that historically earns beautiful actresses the sort of respect that leads to more interesting parts down the line (although Poots has already done better work in such nearly-unseen festival movies as “Frank & Lola” and “Sweet Virginia”). But the screenplay isn’t clear enough on how this woman feels toward her son, portraying her as an alternately oblivious and devoted mother, while endangering him on such a regular basis — lost in the cold, caught in a police raid, trapped in a burning building — even the most ambivalent viewer would call Child Protective Services if they witnessed such behavior in real life.
The final half hour should be the movie’s strongest, as Ali — who fell asleep aboard a mobile home that carried her halfway across the country — makes the impulsive decision to steal the building out from under its owner. Though inevitably doomed, this outrageous heist makes for a striking cinematic image, like something out of a Kelly Reichardt movie (or perhaps French director Michel Gondry’s cabin-on-wheels road movie “Microbe & Gasoline”): a wild-eyed woman with nothing to lose, racing down country roads with her 8-year-old son in the front seat and a full-scale home fishtailing behind her. Alas, her desperate getaway ends almost as soon as it began (with Bone nearly drowning in the process!), revealing that de Fontenay had as little idea as she did where this adventure might take her.