“Grief manifests itself in unexpected ways,” muses an extraordinarily understanding mortician in Patricia Rozema’s “Mouthpiece,” as a grieving client climbs into a cedar casket. But the most unexpected way grief manifests itself in the film is that the bereaved heroine is played by two actresses, Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, who aren’t entirely in sync about the best way forward.
Based on Nostbakken and Sadava’s stage play, this metaphysical two-hander about a young woman’s struggle to write a eulogy for her mother roils in guilt, resentment, sadness, and thorny notions of feminine identity. The conceit isn’t a natural for the screen, despite Rozema’s attempts to give a strong visual dimension, but it’s a thoughtful interrogation of modern womanhood, leavened by gallows humor. A warm reception in Rozema’s native Canada seems assured, but its intimate scope and semi-experimental device presents a challenge in other territories.
As Cassandra Haywood, a 30-year-old writer with a tendency to doodle outside the lines, Nostbakken and Sadava don’t play two distinct sides of the same person, like the wild side and the rational side, or the responsible one and the reckless one. Instead, they’re alternating and interchangeable manifestations of a single person, albeit one who’s filled with confusion and anguish. They dress the same and occasionally move in perfect synchronization, but they are otherwise fiercely ambivalent about how to remember Cass’ mother Elaine (Maev Beaty), the central figure in her life.
While Cass helps make the arrangements for Elaine’s funeral — picking out the casket and flowers, loading up on cookie tins and shrimp cocktail at the grocery store, dealing with the well-meaning entreaties of Aunt Jane (Paula Boudreau) — she flashes back to defining incidents from her youth. Like her daughter, Elaine was a talented writer and editor who chose to give up her career in order to take care of Cass and her younger brother. Cass’ guilt and resentment over her mother’s thwarted ambition colored her sense of self profoundly, and opened up a generational divide that the two had trouble bridging in life. Their relationship was so contentious, in fact, that the rest of the family cringes at her insistence on delivering the eulogy, though it’s clear she’s the right one to do it.
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“Mouthpiece” errs by repeatedly intimating that something terrible happened between Cass and Elaine one boozy Christmas Eve while declining to say what that terrible thing was for much of the film, saving it for the third-act reveal. There’s also a soft-focus quality to the flashback scenes that’s intended to mirror the haziness of memory, but feels more like piling a visual gimmick on top of a conceptual one. Rozema, Nostbakken, and Sadava do better with the film’s more playful moments, such as spontaneous, full-color musical sequences in church pews and produce aisles, and the sarcastic back-and-forths between the two Casses. Comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s “Persona” are inevitable, but Nostbakken and Sadava are natural cut-ups and their comic chemistry keeps the film from sinking entirely into melancholy.
Rozema’s quick-cut interplay between past and present, along with the doubling effects of Catherine Lutes’ cinematography, can’t always cover for the film’s stage roots. And sometimes they backfire entirely, as in a sequence where the two Casses’ metaphysical fight turns into a physical one, set against the invisible force field of a church altar. But “Mouthpiece” digs deeply and personally into the roles women play, past and present, and how societal expectations can muddy up their individual desires. This profound loss forces Cass to understand and respect the choices her mother made — not just for Cass’ benefit, but her own — and it culminates in an elusive sense of peace.