Single motherhood is an exercise in chaos — especially when you have a lot of growing up to do yourself. Such is the driving theme of the new comedy ‘Theresa Is a Mother.’ It is a family-centric film in more ways than one: Writer and lead actress C. Fraser Press co-directed the film with her husband Darren Press, and their three daughters also co-star. The result of this clan collaboration is a funny and moving portrait of a flawed but well-meaning parent trying to better herself and, as best she can, control the familial pandemonium around her.
Theresa, a forty-something aspiring musician with more heart than talent, has no money or partner. Facing eviction, she moves with her three young daughters – Maggie (Schuyler Press), Tuesday (Maeve Press), and Penelope (Amaya Press) – into her parents’ middle-of-nowhere rural house for the summer, hoping she will figure out what to do with her life.
From her financial failings to her inability to corral her kids, Theresa has some deep flaws as a mom. Press effectively portrays Theresa as a neurotic, well-meaning screw-up trying like hell to bond more with her kids — and to set a better example for them. “Parents are idiots,” Theresa concludes at one point. But as she repeatedly makes clear, that does not prevent them from caring, or trying to do better.
To its great advantage, “Theresa” emphasizes humor, character dynamics, and unfolding layers of emotion ahead of plot. Many of its scenes play out long after the plot beats have been conveyed. Humor and character interactions are allowed room to grow and breathe, amping up until scenes hit heights of supreme ridiculousness. In one scene, an out-of-sorts Theresa wanders around the perimeter of her car after being pulled over, stretching out the scene length as a police officer yells at her to get back in. She finally does, but not before getting her foot stuck in an abandoned guitar.
The film also teems with bizarre running jokes – for instance, a recurring TV cooking show starring clerically garbed African American TV chefs who sing food-themed gospel music while preparing dishes such as the “Holy Trinity three bean salad.” On the surface, some of these scenes do not seem to advance plot or character development. But they add to the film’s themes of searching for control in a world where things are anything but neat, easy or logical.
The three Press children bring impressive performances to the proceedings – especially the eldest, Schuyler, whose Maggie emanates a magnetic, odd-duck intelligence. She is obsessed with old showtunes and wears strange costumes to school, causing other kids to laugh and whisper. Much of the time, she seems off in her own head. She is somehow a child and an old soul all at once. It is a nuanced performance, and a promising film debut.
Indeed, none of the film’s characters are clichéd types. Take Jerry (Robert Turano), a seemingly uptight bank official who denies Theresa a job. Later, Jerry confronts Theresa when he thinks that Maggie has been stealing yard work jobs from his thirteen-year-old son, Seth (Matthew Gumley), by accepting lower wages. (In reality, it was Theresa herself who was stealing the work. Naturally, she does not correct him.) Just as the scene seems poised for a tense confrontation, Jerry expresses a grudging respect for “Maggie’s” ruthless capitalism, and amiably suggests that Seth and Maggie work as a team in the future. He even asks Theresa to write a song for Seth to sing at his upcoming Bar Mitzvah. The film’s characters rarely behave as expected, lending them three-dimensionality.
While it may be an old theme, “Theresa” articulately illustrates how the flaws of parents seep into the DNA of their children. Cloris (Edie McClurg) and Roy (Richard Poe) are alternately upbeat, distant, and despondent. (Much of the latter two, we learn, has to do with a past family tragedy.) And yet they clearly love their daughter, and do their meager best to show it. Their behavior and emotions explain a lot about Theresa, from her lack of self-confidence to her parental warmth. On the surface, “Theresa Is a Mother” is loose, light, and funny. But the film possesses impressive psychological depth, probing Theresa’s neuroses and their roots.
“Theresa’s” use of music is very effective. The film shuttles between a soundtrack of abrasive rock music and a soft acoustic guitar-driven score, alternately evoking overwhelming discord and a searching melancholy.
Unfortunately, Alex Kornreich’s photography tends to be sluggish, mostly consisting of static shots. While editor Chad Smith wisely avoids an overabundance of cutting, choosing instead to let long scenes play out uninterrupted, the film still might have benefited from a livelier camera. But it is a small complaint.
In “Theresa Is a Mother,” we witness two generations of children trying to take care of yet more children, and a mother trying as best she can to break the cycle and become an adult. The film could have been a shallow comedy about wacky family dynamics. Instead it is an insightful story about how parents, through all their failings and best efforts, shape their kids.
- David Teich