Plausibility takes a back seat to laughs in Shannon Plumb’s debut feature “Towheads,” which works better as a series of well-conceived, impeccably timed and executed physical gags, with light dustings of pathos, than as the story of a woman sacrificing her artistic identity on the altar of motherhood. The noted video and performance artist lassoes her real-life husband (“Blue Valentine” director Derek Cianfrance) and kids into the project, filming in their Brooklyn apartment, and delivers an impressive, empathetic comic turn in the central role. The result, though insular, will expose Plumb’s work to potentially larger, appreciative arthouse auds.
Plumb casts herself as the exhausted Penny, an overtaxed mother of adorably impish blond boys Cody, 4, and Walker, 7, and wife to unsympathetic theater director Matt (Cianfrance) whose lack of emotional support for her is literalized by the camera never filming his face. Like fellow-performance artist Miranda July, stifled by domesticity in “The Future,” Plumb’s inability to define herself through art leaves her vulnerable to impulse. Defensively venturing forth into a hostile or, at best, indifferent world with which she can barely cope, Penny dons various guises: a spectacularly inept pole dancer; a swaggering, mustachioed young man; a bell-ringing Santa Claus.
Eventually she interiorizes her alienation, abandoning all responsibility and spending hours in front of a camera, mired in costumed illusion, to her husband’s disgust and her children’s increased anxiety. But “Towheads” plays comedically, and Penny’s adventures teem with virtuoso bits of business that shout their allegiance to silent slapstick.
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Plumb channels Buster Keaton’s signature sense of space while pushing along a stroller or her son’s diminutive bike, walking at an exaggerated forward angle, as if exterior forces were bending her body as she strives to resist them. She frames scenes in a Keatonesque manner as well when, dressed as Santa, she spots Matt with a woman and “unobtrusively” follows them to a restaurant: A reverse angle from inside the eatery finds her peering through its plate-glass window in search of her errant spouse while, below sidewalk-level and out of her sightline, the couple gaze up at the improbable Xmas apparition.
Still, slapstick abounds, reaching absurdist heights when Penny shows up at her husband’s party swallowed by an overwrought disaster of a dress, stumbles past the clutch of guests and teeters wildly on glittery red heels in the background, struggling to sit down. Another symphony of pratfalls evolves from a folding chair, a curly straw and a tampon box. A tour-de-force dance with an illuminated standing lamp on an empty stage puts the pic in perspective, with character and narrative sidelined for choreographed magic.
Reviewed at New Directors/New Films, New York, March 12, 2013. (Also in Rotterdam Film Festival.) Running time: 86 MIN.
Directed, written by Shannon Plumb. Camera (color, HD), Brett Jutkiewicz; editor, Joseph Krings; music, David Wilder; music supervisor, Joe Rudge; sound, George Mailloux; supervising sound editor, Ryan M. Price; casting, Cindy Tolan, Adam Caldwell.
With: Shannon Plumb, Derek Cianfrance, Cody Cianfrance, Walker Cianfrance, Alexandra Henrikson, Lora Lee Gayer.