Celia Rowlson-Hall has the body of a tomboy, the brain of a feminist and an imagination quite unlike anyone else. In her dance-based, dreamlike feature debut, the svelte young woman tends to appear either draped in an oversized pink T-shirt or stripped down to a pair of men’s Y-front briefs and matching wifebeater. Rowlson-Hall’s bony, almost prepubescent look suggests androgyny, not motherhood, and yet “Ma” imagines this budding performance artist as a modern-day Virgin Mary — a mute and potentially miraculous mother figure who makes an allegorical pilgrimage to Las Vegas, where she delivers (and subsequently abandons) an infant of possibly divine provenance. “Ma” is a specialty item even by festival standards, and yet without so much as uttering a word, this microbudget labor of love augurs an exciting new voice.
One of the more intriguing talents to have emerged from the North Carolina School of the Arts in recent years (the same interdisciplinary conservatory that groomed directors David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols), Rowlson-Hall studied choreography and dance, but subsequently opted to showcase her terps training via a range of film and video projects. With dozens of provocative short-form experiments under her belt, including such enviable collaborations as SebastiAn’s “Love in Motion” musicvideo (she saw to the dance, Gaspar Noe directed), she has captured the film world’s attention in an unconventional way — sure to confound them all the more once they get a load of “Ma.”
After setting the stage with a Bible quotation (the “price above rubies” passage, misattributed, but only slightly, to Proverbs 31:30), day breaks on an unnamed figure wandering through the desert: “Who can find a virtuous woman?” the film asks — answering its own rhetorical question by putting the dust-covered, T-shirt-clad Rowlson-Hall through a series of abstract trials. Almost immediately, she meets her blue-collar Joseph (a greaser whom the credits identify as “Daniel,” played by appropriately retro-styled Andrew Pastides), hitching a ride in his Oldsmobile to the nearest shelter, where she experiences what might be an immaculate conception in the motel bath.
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Best not to get overly literal about the Virgin Mary imagery, as that seems to be little more than a departure point from which Rowlson-Hall explores — and reinvents — the archetypal hero’s journey, carving out an alternative, distaff path where mostly men have gone before. And what might Joseph Campbell make of the way she dismantles and reconstructs certain Western myths? Though “Ma’s” narrative arc isn’t nearly as strong as the ingenuity of any given scene (sand pouring from a hotel-room painting, a gender-conquering dance that ends with Rolwson-Hall cutting her hair, dressing as a man and dominating the maid), it’s clear the character is seeking something to believe in, preferably love, which she must first learn to recognize within herself.
Rather than following logic, Rowlson-Hall seems to be steering by intuition and reacting to the culture that raised her, choosing either to bless or rejecting society’s expectations at every turn — as when her seemingly naive character responds to the changing soundtrack of the motel TV set: first a gunfight, then horror, followed by comedy, tragedy and porn. These reactions are all wound up into a single interpretive dance routine that ends with a Village People-looking ensemble of menacing, ultra-male stereotypes crowded around her bed.
While the entire project seems to be commenting on all the ways that social pressures try to trap or confine us, the cinematic medium has seldom felt as free as it does in Rowlson-Hall’s hands — not since the free-love finale of Antonioni’s “Zabriskie Point” have sand dunes seemed so liberating. With no words spoken (only sung, and even then limited to an eery, falsetto-voiced blonde girl in the film’s final act), “Ma” conveys a remarkable range of feeling, from anxiety to exhilaration, which Rowlson-Hall dramatizes entirely through music and movement — originating with body language, then enhanced via her intuitive sense of camera placement and editing.
These days, screen-based choreography too often panders to our most carnal desires. From Miley Cyrus twerking to Channing Tatum stripping, the subtext is clearly sex — a theme Rowlson-Hall explores from an entirely different angle, by investigating the underlying and often inarticulable anxieties of connection, rather than simply gyrating in whatever way audiences find most arousing. Lensed in beautiful, sun-blanched widescreen, “Ma” takes a certain iconography of the American southwest (where crumbling desert inns give way to showgirl-infested super-casinos) and renders it almost apocalyptic, just as Stephen King did in “The Stand” — although the only good book Rowlson-Hall is quoting from here is the one she finds stashed in her motel-room nightstand.