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Toronto Film Review: ‘Mom & Dad’

This splatstick romp couches its social critiques of shallow materialism and casual racism in breakneck action.

With:
Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Lance Hendricksen, Robert Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Rachel Melvin, Samantha Lemole, Joseph D. Reitman, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Joseph D. Reitman, Rachel Melvin, Bobby Richards, Sharon Gee, Edwin Lee Gibson, Adin Alexa Steckler.

“We love you but sometimes we just want to kill you” is a thought that crosses nearly every frazzled parents’ mind sooner or later. That figurative sentiment is taken all too literally in “Mom & Dad,” which finds the gonzo sensibility that writer-director Brian Taylor applied most usefully to the “Crank” action movies working at least as well in comedic horror. Though sure to be distasteful for some viewers even to ponder, this giddy exercise transcends mere bad-taste humor to become one of the great jet-black comedies about suburbia, destined for the same cult-classic status accorded “The Stepford Wives,” “Parents” and “Heathers.”

After a particularly good example of the 1970s genre pic homage that has infiltrated so many movies’ opening credits of late, we settle into discordant ordinary life on a seemingly ordinary day on a generic middle-class cul-de-sac in Whateversburg, USA (the movie was shot in Kentucky). Our protagonists are likewise very ordinary, if dysfunctional: Cellphone-glued teenage daughter Carly (Anne Winters) rendezvous with her forbidden (black!) boyfriend, Damon (Robert Cunningham); little bro Joshua (Zackary Arthur) is a bratty little terror who’s about 10. Brent (Nicolas Cage) can still pull it together to be the “fun dad,” but simmering just beneath that is a volcano of midlife-crisis resentment. All this wears heavily on mom Kendall (Selma Blair), who sacrificed her career and any other outside life for a family that no longer seems to appreciate her.

As they go their separate ways for yet another day of work, school, aerobics class, etc., it gradually emerges that something inexplicable has occurred. (There are vague hints that some kind of neurological virus transmitted by TV and computer screens has brought “mass hysteria.”) It’s only when a full-on bloodbath erupts on the high school football field that audience, the characters and then the mass media begin to grasp what’s going on: For whatever reason, parents have suddenly developed a compulsive urge to kill their children.

Realizing Joshua may be in mortal danger, Carly makes her way home through the now carnage-strewn suburban landscape — while, unfortunately, a newly energized Mom & Dad are also heading there, with a vengeance. The resulting standoff soon sees the kids lock themselves in the basement, with their parents using every unscrupulous means to get at them. Just when you think the situation is tapped-out, Taylor throws in a monkey-wrench with the arrival of Brent’s parents (Lance Hendricksen, Marilyn Dodds Frank), who were expected for dinner but bring something else to the party.

Couching its social critiques — of shallow materialism, casual racism and other privileged woes — in breakneck action and merciless splatstick, “Mom & Dad” is a gas. Taylor and his terrific tech/design collaborators avoid wearing out the joke with just enough spry variation in tone and pace, alleviating the frequently frenetic content with stretches of ironic lyricism and even poignancy. (Credit for that should be fully shared with d.p. Daniel Pearl, editors Rose Corr and Fernando Villena, composer Mr. Bill and music supervisor Ryan Gaines, all of whom knock it out of the park.)

The juvenile actors play it straight, with skill; the adults get the more interesting task of conveying various balances of cartoon and genuine menace. An unlikely star from the start, whose shaky choices of late have imperiled that status, Cage has always been at his best in precisely this zone of maniacal comic invention. That you see him doing variations here on what he’s done before doesn’t lessen the performance’s unpredictable, inspired hilarity.

Blair, on the other hand, feels somehow underappreciated even if she’s hardly been underemployed. She covers a gamut from bittersweet sympathy to farce to monstrousness, running amok like a cat on piano keys, yet hitting each note perfectly. “Mom & Dad” isn’t the kind of movie they give acting awards to — but in a just world, it would be.

Toronto Film Review: 'Mom & Dad'

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 10, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: A Momentum Pictures and Armory Films presentation of an Armory Films production in association with Dovecheck Prods., The Fyzz Facility and XYZ Films. (International sales: XYZ, Los Angeles.) Producers: Chris Lemole, Tim Zajaros, Brian Taylor. Executive producers: Jere Hausfater, Cassian Elwes, Nate Bolotin, Ali Jazayeri, Nick Spicer, David Gendron, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Rob Gough.

Crew: Director, writer: Brian Taylor. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Daniel Pearl. Editors: Rose Corr, Fernando Villena. Music: Mr. Bill.

With: Nicolas Cage, Selma Blair, Anne Winters, Zackary Arthur, Lance Hendricksen, Robert Cunningham, Olivia Crocicchia, Rachel Melvin, Samantha Lemole, Joseph D. Reitman, Marilyn Dodds Frank, Joseph D. Reitman, Rachel Melvin, Bobby Richards, Sharon Gee, Edwin Lee Gibson, Adin Alexa Steckler.

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