Here in America, we believe in mom, baseball, and apple pie. In Estonia, it would be something like ema (mother), cross-country skiing, and kissel. Respect for motherhood might be a cultural constant, but Elsa Vaaring is still feeling pretty unappreciated. She quit her job to care for her incapacitated grown son Lauri, only to learn he was probably shot due because of some dodgy dealings he was mixed up in. Family relationships will be strained in Kadri Kõusaar’s Mother (trailer here), which screens during the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.
Of course, Vaaring is stuck serving as Lauri’s primary care-giver, because you would hardly expect her husband to be helpful. To be fair, he never shirks yard-work, but he clearly cannot deal with the reality of their son’s waking coma. At least, Lauri has a fair number of visitors, but some are inappropriate, like the student with an obvious romantic interest in her now catatonic teacher, while others are more interested in looking for the large Euro cash withdrawal he made shortly before the shooting incident.
However, there is one visitor she is always happy to see. That would be Aarne Männik, Lauri’s principal, who has secretly been carrying on an affair with the married Vaaring. On the other hand, she is always wary when Lauri’s sleazy childhood friend Riin pops in. The local copper also turns up quite regularly, hoping to solve Lauri’s case to redeem for his failure in the big city.
If you must call Mother something, “domestic thriller” would probably suffice, but it is weirdly restrained. Even if you guess who is up to what, the subtlety of Kõusaar’s approach will cause you to second guess yourself. Still, there is something quite evocative and provocative about the ominous undercurrents flowing beneath the surface of this ostensibly neighborly small town, as if it were all the product of David Lynch on his very bestest behavior.
There is no question Mother is a showcase role for Tiina Mälberg and she makes the most of her moment. However, much to our slack-jawed shock, Andres Tabun sort of steals the film with his heavy third act scene as the befuddled father. Similarly, Jaan Pekh slyly toys with audience expectations as the vaguely Colombo-ish copper.
Like Mother Vaaring and her son, Mother is largely confined to one location, but Kõusaar shepherds the large cast of characters in and out so dexterously, it never feels stagey. It is a quiet, buttoned-down film, but it is roiling on the inside. Recommended for fans of Sirk and Losey, Mother screens again tomorrow (4/16), Monday (4/18), and next Friday (4/22), as part of this year’s Tribeca.