There’s something intimate about found footage films. It’s what makes them so uncomfortable, and so effective. There is far less distance between viewers and people in the film than there would be otherwise. We become more aware than ever that someone else is in control of what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing it. There is almost no way of getting more than one side to any story, but can the person telling us the story really be trusted?...
...Writer/director Tucia Lyman’s M.O.M: Mothers of Monsters is a deeply unsettling masterwork in unreliable storytelling and untrustworthy perceptions. A mother, deeply concerned about the seemingly precarious mental state of her 16-year-old son, decides to start setting up hidden cameras around the house so she can monitor his activity. She is afraid of him and what he might be capable of and haunted by the tragedy her older brother caused when he was 16. But she isn’t just recording for herself. She’s also recording for other mothers with troubled kids who may have slipped under the system’s radar.
One of the most unique things about this found footage film is that, right from the start, we have no idea who is telling the story. The mother, Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton), has filmed most of what we see, and is the one talking to us, but she is not guaranteed to be the one in control of what we see. The film unfolds through a series of videos and clip files playing from a laptop, and periodically we see a mouse hovering over the screen to choose a new file to play. But not until about halfway through do we know who is in control of the choosing. Even if she is playing the clips for us, as the story progresses, we find out she has just as much to hide about her past as her son seems to have. There are plenty of unanswered questions and unsettled feelings left over about her by film’s end to warrant repeat watches.
There’s something inherently slow burn to me about a found footage. The closeness is palpable and creates a sense of tension I find sometimes hard to mimic in other forms. But have you ever found a slow burn so low in your gut it makes you squirm in your seat, unsure of where things are going or how things will end, and it makes you so viscerally uncomfortable you can’t bring yourself to look away? That was and is M.O.M. At 97 minutes you might expect this one to feel short, but it doesn’t. Neither, though, does it drag. Instead it sinks into your brain, wrapping you in tension as you flip between trying to figure out what can be trusted. I found myself totally enveloped in the story immediately, when the opening home video shows a young Jacob responding to his mother’s concerned off-camera question about whether or not he meant to hurt some unseen animal with “what’s ‘on purpose’?” and spiraling from there. Is Jacob (Bailey Edwards) really a psychopath? Or just some troubled 16-year-old kid who needs therapy?
More than an in-depth look at family distress and what it means to be afraid of someone you love, M.O.M also critiques its audience and the social fascination with serial killers, psychopaths, and their ilk. When Abbey mentions she’s recording her son for the benefit of other mothers with sons they suspect might be dealing with psychopathy, she confronts us directly: “If you’re not a mom with a troubled kid and you’re watching this, you’re a psychopath. Have some fucking respect.” It is a call out for watching in the midst of a movie that demands us to watch. Don’t look away, it says, look for patterns, but only if you’re suffering like I am. But this isn’t even the first instance of the movie to criticize the social fascination with other people’s pain. In part of the story told from Jacob’s point of view we see him interviewed by another student at the high school and asked questions like what got him kicked out of his old school and what happened to his dad. To which he responds either by cutting off the questions or shifting the focus. “Ask me something original,” he demands. And he’s right to do so, to a point. No one is automatically entitled to anyone else’s life story, and just because something looks broken and mysterious—as a new kid with no dad in the picture at a new school always seems—doesn’t mean anyone has any right to put that person’s pain on display as a way for them to explain their presence. Potential psychopath or not, Jacob is the first “brooding new kid” I’ve seen in a movie to criticize the incessant need to figure him out on the most basic of levels, and I found having him do so was a nice counterbalance to his mother’s concerns and critique of who might be watching her journey. The only people who need to know what she has to share, or what Jacob’s life is like, are the people either he or his mother deem need to know. Everyone else who wants to know is just a vulture, or worse, a psychopath.
Armed to the teeth with twists, shocks, and unsettling questions about what makes someone a monster, M.O.M will be playing at the Arena Cinelounge in Los Angeles on March 13th, with a VOD release to follow through Indie Rights.
By Katelyn Nelson
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