It makes sense that one of the protagonists of “Materna” is a fan of Jean-Pierre Melville’s existential neo-noir “Le Samouraï,” given that David Gutnik’s feature debut is itself a tapestry of modern alienation and disaffection. Charting the plights of four women whose paths eventually cross on a New York City subway train, Gutnik’s fragmented feature debut is rooted in fraught mother-daughter dynamics and intertwined issues of regret, resentment, racism, classism and homophobia.
Having won prizes for best actress (Assol Abdullina) and best cinematography (Greta Zozula, Chananun Chotrungroj, Kelly Jeffrey) at the pandemic-pinched 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, it should entice audiences in search of distinctive art-house fare when it debuts in limited release on Aug. 6 (ahead of an Aug. 10 VOD premiere), even if its parts are ultimately greater than its whole.
Co-written with leads Abdullina and Jade Eshete, Gutnik’s film begins in a New York City subway car whose crowd includes a quartet of women — later identified as Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil), Mona (Eshete), Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) and Perizad (Abdullina) — whose pained expressions are exacerbated by the discomfort caused by an unhinged passenger (Sturgill Simpson) intent on harassing female riders. It’s obvious that this individual will cause eventual trouble. At least initially, though, Gutnik conceals the nature of that crisis, instead flashing back to his subjects’ personal situations, all of which, per the film’s title, have to do with hang-ups regarding mother-child relationships.
First is Jean, who spends her days and nights repeating a cycle of waking, tending to plants, exercising, silently enduring her mother’s suggestions that she freeze her eggs and working on a VR sex project. The haptic responses she receives from those virtual-reality experiences, however, don’t quell her ennui. And when a session goes awry — and she then discovers she’s somehow pregnant — further isolation ensues.
That makes Jean a kindred spirit to Mona, an actress who’s estranged from a Jehovah’s Witness mother determined to convince her daughter to return to the fold. Mona is caught between wanting to embrace and flee her mom, and Gutnik, Abdullina and Eshete’s script underscores that fact by having Mona both audition a scene about being a fetus in the womb who’s trying to fight off her mother’s abortion attempts, as well as engage in confrontational role-play with her teacher (Cassandra Freeman).
Sheil and Eshete embody these characters with coiled fury and crushing loneliness, as does Burdge as Ruth, a well-to-do conservative wife who enlists the aid of her pro-Black Lives Matter brother Gabe (Rory Culkin) to help with her son Jared (Jake Katzman), who’s gotten into trouble at school over a mysterious incident involving a lesbian classmate. Their vignette culminates with a dinner spat rife with talking-points from both sides of the political aisle, and proves the most leaden portion of “Materna.”
Following that clash, the film segues to Kyrgyzstan, where Perizad deals with her mother and grandmother in the aftermath of her uncle’s shrouded-in-lies death. Like her American compatriots, Perizad is adrift with regards to her own life and her bond with her mom, resulting in conflict and, in this instance, the promise of potential understanding and reconciliation.
“Materna” wisely doesn’t try to neatly resolve its multifaceted tensions, and Sheil, Abdullina, Burdge and especially Eshete’s performances are attuned to the material’s fundamental air of incompleteness and instability. Yet despite a diverse Andrew Orkin score, the forlorn and minimalist tone struck throughout proves too uniform, thanks in part to cinematography that — in each segment — segues similarly between intense close-ups and remote compositions in which figures are spied in dark, empty spaces or constricting doorways. The film is formally beautiful almost to a fault, giving it a schematic quality that’s at odds with its roiling emotions.