Patricia Rozema has had a storied career in Canadian cinema, beginning with her explosive debut in 1987 I’ve Heard The Mermaids Singing that won best first-time director honours at Cannes. Since then she’s crafted works that are highly provocative, often dealing with female characters never quite comfortable in their own circumstances but showing the strength to rise above the strictures that attempt to hold them back.
Her latest work, MOUTHPIECE continues this trend, and in many ways is her most assured film yet. Deftly adapting the play of the same name, and casting the playwrights Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava in the roles they originated on stage, she tells the story of a young woman named Cassandra coming to terms with the death of her mother.
The co-lead performance is one of mirroring, offering different aspects that evolve far more than a simple binary division between good/bad, quiet/loud, and so on. There’s a fluidity in these aspects of Cassandra’s character, one that leads to a more full realization of her thought processes and emotional reach. Nostbakken and Sadava do a remarkable job at intertwining these elements, occasionally leaning into the more showy, synchronized elements while at others gently indicating fear or anxiety with a minor glance or slump in their posture.
It’s these small moments that elevate the film from its theatrical origins, allowing for a far more nuanced take that’s able to be captured in closeup. Rozema’s craft has been honed of late on episodic television, and there’s a welcome concision to her shots that work brilliantly. It’s to the film’s immense credit that despite the claustrophobic setting it never feels stagey, with the sweeping movement and sympathetic editing crafting a rich, meaningful realization of Cassandra’s coming to terms with her loss.
Ari Cohen, Jake Epstein, Ishan Davé, Maev Beaty and Paula Boudreau, most actors with robust stage experience, round out the ensemble, while the majority of the film centers on the twinned lead performance. It’s easy to see how the trick could be tiresome, the self-centredness of the young woman more irritating than engaging, yet tonally Rozema manages to keep it all in check, helped out immensely by the attenuation of the performance in the quieter moments by Nostbakken and Sadava.
A moving, warm film that neither pulls its punches nor revels in misanthropy, MOUTHPIECE is an exceptional work, one that feels very much a perfect vehicle for the best of Rozema’s craft and proclivities. Thanks to an interesting performance hook that never grows tiresome, it’s a film born on stage but one that truly comes to life when realized for the big screen.