Here I am. Where are you? I love you. I miss you.
Lukas Moodysson's woefully neglected (at least in North America) new film starring Michelle Williams, Gael Garcia Bernal and Marife Necesito (a wonderful Filipino actress who is the real heart and soul of the film) steps back from flirtations with pornographic explicitness (A Hole in My Heart) or the baffling bauble of Container and takes on the large task of trying to understand family bonds in the 21st century. A film as timely as Up In The Air or the 2006 film it is inevitably compared to: Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel (if only because of the world-hopping story and Gael Garcia Bernal who is, more or less, in the Brad Pitt role), it may be even better than either of those two because of its quiet (distant) empathic confusion. While it eventually comes to a boil, for the most part, Mammoth is as ponderous and disconnected as the characters who, incidentally, feel startlingly real.
Opening with a very wealthy family in a Soho loft apartment gallivanting and laughing in warmth and tenderness, it is a fleeting moment before the ominous title appears on screen. Dad (Bernal) is off to Thailand to seal a multimillion dollar video game research deal (that it is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game is not an accident) while Mom (Williams) heads into the consuming and hectic New York City hospital where she is a surgical doctor. This leaves young Jackie a lot of time with her Filipino nanny, Gloria (Necesito) where they visit the Planetarium or Gloria's church group amongst other activities. A boy is ambulanced into the hospital; stabbed several times by his own mother. Dr. Ellen comments that is it a sick world. Meanwhile, Gloria's two boys, talk about their mother. They miss her and do not understand why she is working half way around the world. Leo is stuck in limbo (Bangkok) as the video game contracts he was supposed to sign are stuck in negotiations with his CFO and the Singapore business men who are lowering their promised amount by a couple million. With nothing to do but call his wife, wait in an empty luxurious room or shop for meaningless things (he buys a cheap knock off identical to his own Rolex, sets it to Thailand time, while the original keeps New York Time, this is not by accident.) Eventually, he bails on the expensive hermetically sealed hotel (apparently Scarlett Johannson was staying in Japan) and books for a bohemian cabin on the beach. Hanging out in bars with the other backpackers, he hooks up in a chaste relationship with a Thai prostitute (also a mom).
To be perfectly frank, other than to connect the story to another mother, Gael Garcia Bernal's Leo could probably have been excised from the story. Despite the progress of the western world in the past 50 years, the familial bond is still very much defined by the maternal one, and Mammoth clearly has motherhood and sacrifice on its plate. Too busy with her job, Ellen begins to resent Gloria for having what appears to be a stronger maternal bond with her Jackie than she has. Expensive purchases relieve do not reliever her guilt or engage her daughter to her liking. An attempt to make pizza together on one of Gloria's church nights results in Jackie quietly pleading her mother to bail for Filipino company, even though they do spend so little time together (Ellen then orders in a pizza, this is not an accident). Gloria is beginning to grow anxious because she is spending too much time away from her own boys. The house she is attempting to build for herself and her family on a beach in the Philippines does not look like it is going to be finished until the boys are nearly done highschool (they are only now 5 and 10 years old). To assuage the youngest (and her own guilt), she ships him a basketball (the fact that the ball was manufactured in the Philippines is not an accident), but Salvatore, the oldest is actually the more emotionally distraught. A hard lesson from his grandmother has its heart in the right place, but ultimately mis-communicated to the boy; perhaps his mother could have said it better if she were not a voice on the other end of a mobile phone. Gloria confesses her own desire to return home to her mother, "God says this is not right!" A mother should be with her own children. Her mother points out that she is buying them a future. Meanwhile Ellen attempts to save the boy with the stab wounds, displacing a large portion of her own maternal instinct on the unconscious child ("I'll buy you all the ice cream you can eat! All the candy in the world.") Leo pays the prostitute not to have sex with him, she insists on giving him 'The Girlfriend Experience,' carousing around tourist beaches of Thailand Wither her own child? They visit a monastery (shades of Lost in Translation again) presided over by a dessicated monk wearing Raybans. As fitting an image of globalism as Filipinos digging through mounds of trash for sustenance (Grandma's lesson) or several Thai prostitutes swapping anecdotes of their client preference by country of origin.
Time. Money. Space. Moodyson intercuts across class and geography with grace and intimacy. His signature use of loud music (here Ladytron and Cat Power, both excellent) over top of scenes plays differently here than it did in Fucking Amal or Lilja-4-ever. Williams looks shockingly like Russian actress Oksana Akinshina, all grown up, co-incidental or not?) Like both those previous films, this is nevertheless substance over style. Mammoth never feels pedantic or burdened the 'butterfly effect' bombast or feel the need for large dramatic flourishes (Babel is guilty of the latter two). It makes for a more contemplative film. There are several ironies that carry bold thematic stuff. Ellen's issue with losing touch with her daughter is quite real, even heart-breaking in its own way, but to have her guilelessly complain to Gloria in an attempt to reach across class boundaries (Gloria is even cleaning a toilet at the time) while narcissisticly missing the fact that the nanny is much much further from her own children should cast Ellen as almost a villain. Somehow the film avoids this in the common ground that money poisons but doesn't necessarily cure. Twice characters sit under the vast implacable dome of the Planetarium, dwarfed by time and space. The titular Mammoth is the inlay of the worlds most expensive pen. Much is said about the time it takes for the woolly pre-historic elephants to be extracted from the arctic, dried, and their ivory processed to get into a pen that will eventually sign a contract for a massive social computer network. Does God think this is right? Is it more significant than a mother finding solace by sleeping in her daughters bed during the day, for this is as close as she seems get. Displaced time spent with a ghost. Not very different from the smiling pictures of Salvatore and his brother on Gloria's wall. Yet the doctor saves lives in and the nanny is building a future. Is it better to live in (relative) poverty and spend as much time with your family? Or make sacrifices for a financially secure future? Didn't Lennon say, "Life is what happens when you are making plans."
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