Film Review: ‘Mother’

An ostensibly disturbing subject is masked by wry humor in Kadri Kousaar’s amusing though dark third feature.

'Mother' Review: 'Fargo'-Like Estonian Comedy
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

Kadri Kousaar has always toyed with dark subjects — “Magnus” and “The Arbiter” both played in the shadowy areas of morality — and while “Mother” also deals with unsavory elements, it does so with a quirky, “Fargo”-like humor that’s a pleasure to watch. This amusing tale of small-town eccentrics trying to figure out what happened with the money a guy withdrew just before a gun accident will keep viewers guessing until the very end, and even though the denouement feels forced, the journey there is lighthearted despite the ostensibly disturbing subject matter. “Mother” will fit perfectly into festivals needing a bit of intelligent levity.

As in nearby Finland, Estonian humor is strong on idiosyncratic personalities negotiating emotional upheavals while maintaining a placid exterior. Such is the case with Elsa (Tiina Malberg), the titular mother forced to give up her job to care for her comatose schoolteacher son Lauri (Siim Maaten). Stuck in a dull marriage with uncommunicative Arvo (Andres Tabun), she’s been having an affair with the seemingly anodyne yet passionate Aarne (Andres Noormets).

Since Elsa’s role as caretaker precludes her leaving the house, her assignations with Aarne all take place under her roof, with her unresponsive son upstairs. In fact, practically the entire movie is shot in her bland home, where people come and go, all trying to figure out who shot Lauri and what happened to the money he withdrew just before the “accident.” For a small town where everyone is in their neighbor’s business, it’s surprising to cop Savi (Jaan Pehk) that no one seems to know. This includes Lauri’s friend Andres (Jaak Prints), whose failing company needed a cash influx; kooky girlfriend Liina (Katrin Kalma); and his student lover Riin (Rea Lest), perhaps the only person not interested in the missing dough.

Given Kousaar’s penchant for narratives that work on multiple levels, it’s unsurprising that beneath the oddball situations lies the story of an unfulfilled woman trapped in a loveless marriage, desperate for passion. On the surface, Elsa is a clean-freak forever brewing cups of coffee, but her need for escape is stronger even than mother love. Those around her might be caricatures, but her suppressed craving to get out of the house, and that small town, practically matches the hunger of Rosa Moline from “Beyond the Forest.”

Of course, it’s all done in that sardonic Estonian manner, coolly lensed and played with very straight faces. Malberg (in her first major role) has an almost oppressively tense air about her, shot with a cold light that makes her pale ginger features seem even more ashen. Set against the neutral tones of her home, all beige and blue-gray, the character’s need for color becomes increasingly apparent. Cool summer light starkly reveals every sagging facial feature, and the nice use of close-ups further the sense of oppression.

Film Review: ‘Mother’

Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (International Narrative Competition), April 14, 2016. Running time: <strong>89 MIN</strong>. (Original title: “Ema”)

  • Production: (Estonia) A Meteoriit production. Produced by Aet Laigu.
  • Crew: Directed by Kadri Kousaar. Screenplay, Leana Jalukse, Al Wallcat, inspired by the radio drama “Coma” by Kevin McCann. Camera (color), Jean-Noel Mustonen; editor, Tambet Tasuja; music, Jaan Pehk; production designer, Minna Hint; costume designer, Liisi Eelmaa; sound, Horret Kuus; casting, Aet Laigu.
  • With: Tiina Malberg, Andres Tabun, Andres Noormets, Siim Maaten, Jaan Pehk, Jaak Prints, Rea Lest, Katrin Kalma.