Directed by David Gutnik, Materna follows four women, unknown to each other, sat riding a subway train in New York City. Over the course of the 1 hour 45 minute run time, we are introduced to each of the women through a series of flashbacks, fusing together their individual stories in an overarching, seemingly mundane journey. Co-written by Gutnik and two of the lead actresses, Jade Eshete and Assol Abdullina, Materna is more than a generic drama, or a character study. It uses clever narrative techniques to drift subtly through the lives and layers of its characters, touching on a variety of perspectives carried out by some incredible and detailed acting.
Materna’s first act introduces us to Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil), a probable agoraphobe and recluse who fills her days with a strict regimen of tai chi, a balanced diet, nagging phone calls from her mother about freezing her eggs and programming her apparent VR sex software. Once it moves past the bizarre VR sex scene (surprisingly not the most uncomfortable moment in the film), Jean’s story takes an unexpected twist as her cybersex experiments result in pregnancy. Striving to cope but struggling to confront her mother she turns to the dark web for answers. Materna avoids a sci-fi approach, instead opting to pursue the emotional narratives present in Jean’s character arc. Amid an existential crisis, Jean finally leaves her house, shuffling towards the subway station.
The second act introduces us to Mona (Jade Eshete), a TV actress auditioning for a role that brings up issues surrounding the relationship she has with her mother. This where Materna subtly connects the women, amplifying the importance of the mother-child relationship in a multitude of ways for each protagonist. For Mona, the most intense part of her story lies in the parallels between her communication with her mother – via text only – and her sessions with her acting coach. These sessions showcase the full range of uncomfortable emotion of Mona’s real life relationship, and the turmoil of her inner child. It is after an emotional breakthrough, much like Jean, Mona seeks to complete her journey on the subway.
Materna’s third act delves into a very current debate, one that showcases the consequences of selective ignorance and general hateful views. We are introduced to Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), a well-off Jewish stay-at-home mother who carries her bigotry and ignorance with such aggression it wears off on her nine year old son. Unsure, and in denial as to why her son has been expelled from school, Ruth reluctantly seeks the advice of her left wing brother Gabe (Rory Culkin). Delving into not only the manipulative and purposefully selective tactics of general right-wing ideologies, but how this drastically divides a family, Materna portrays something beyond refreshing. The reality presented for Ruth allows us to bare witness to actual consequences, rather than skimming the surface of the ‘political’ debate. After a truly uncomfortable confrontation with her son and her brother at the dinner table, Ruth opts to take the subway to make amends with Gabe.
The final act, in retrospect of the first, operates much the same as it slows the narrative to a comfortable, and familiar pace. A subtle exploration of Perizad (Assol Abdullina) and her return to her home country Kyrgyzstan takes us outside of NYC for a more intimate and nostalgic pace. Perizad is visiting home in wake of her uncle’s death, where she must confront her family baggage, including her mother. As Perizad seeks the truth from her family, a touching and defiant story ends as she returns to New York, and boards the subway.
This anthology of tales reaches its climax in an all too familiar fashion, as an angry white man (Sturgill Simpson) harasses and screams onboard the carriage carrying all our fateful protagonists. What unfolds in these final moments is nothing short of radical.
A New York City subway ride brings together four different types of women, all in their final moments connected because they are women, yet as each of their stories unfold, it’s the reflective and relatable portrayal of their differences that makes them real. Although not without it’s flaws, Materna leaves a lasting and profound impression.
Materna is available on VOD from August 10th
by Kelsie Dickinson