David Gutnik’s premier feature film, Materna, consists for four independent stories built around women whose paths will come together in a dangerous situation on a New York subway. Each of the key characters is struggling in different ways with their places in the world and the isolation they find themselves in.
Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil) is an agoraphobic who spends all days in her apartment. There seems to be nothing strong enough to get her out. Her mother calls to nag about “freezing your eggs” and about the possibility of someday Jean being a mother herself. But when there is no one else to talk to, Jean ventures out to catch the fated subway.
Mona (Jade Eshete) is an actress who also has mother issues. Her mother wants her to return to being a Jehovah’s Witness minister, but Mona wants the life she has been creating for herself. After a cathartic roleplay in which she asserts herself, she is feeling good about herself as she heads to the train.
Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) is a very well-to-do woman who strives to maintain the sense of entitled privilege against the “liberal” world that is trying to impose its values on her and her family. That liberalism is personified in her brother Gabe (Rory Culkin) whom she has called to help after the school bureaucrats suspended her son. After a confrontation in the home, she goes off to find Gabe, and rather than hailing a cab, decides to see some of his world by taking the subway.
Parizad (Assol Abdullina) is on the train after returning from Kyrgyzstan, where she went following the death of her uncle. While there she, her mother, and grandmother must deal with a stain on the wall of her uncle’s room, and perhaps a stain on the family was well.
The walls that separate these women from the world may be physical, emotional, intellectual, or (usually) a combination thereof. But the sense of isolation is real in all their cases. That isolation could be what they want in their life, but it also comes with a price that they are all paying inside.
When all four of these women end up on the subway train, their walls are breached by a loud, aggressive man who verbally inserts himself obnoxiously into each of their lives and will eventually trigger a very dangerous situation.
Urban dwellers may well recognize that those obnoxious people in a crowded situation are doubly annoying precisely because they ignore the walls we build to have a sense of privacy in a crowded world. But as we watch this man insert himself into the lives of these women, we might note that his actions are also the result of feeling isolated and unheard in the midst of world filled with people.
The result of all this isolation is fear, anger, sorrow, and eventually violence. The film doesn’t relish isolation, but seems to see it as the essential human condition. Certainly, it is a common experience everyone is touched by at some point, but I found the world of this film a bit too dark overall. The promise of connection is what this film needs to be complete. While a hint of such a promise comes up in some of the stories, we never see the fulfilment.
Materna is in limited release and available on digitally and VOD.