With school shootings and mass tragedies becoming a fixture of our cultural moment, we are growing accustomed not only to mourning the dead, but also to apportioning blame. The stories that emerge after these events are frustratingly inconsistent, comprised of police reports, garbled meme-filled manifestos and psychological profiles from overburdened care workers. All too often we are left wondering why the system failed and what could have been done to avert tragedy. Mother of Monsters, the feature length debut of writer/director Tucia Lyman, examines this phenomenon.
The film presents us with the collected video archives of frantic single mother, Abbey (Melinda Page Hamilton). She is convinced that her child, 16-year-old Jacob (Bailey Edwards), is a psychopath and is planning something horrific. The film flicks between video clips in a non-linear style. It shows us childhood home movies, webcam confessionals and hidden camera footage, as she amasses evidence to support her fears. Jacob’s rage is explosive in private, but he is able to charm his way through school and into the good graces of care workers and other family members, leaving Abbey isolated and helpless. The videos are her only means of taking back control, but what if Jacob can turn the tables?
With the seemingly endless parade of news stories about mass shootings and government inability to take meaningful action, feelings of helplessness and paranoia are rife. It is these feelings that Mother of Monsters effectively emulates, casting the audience as uncertain detectives desperately trying to piece facts together in time to prevent another tragedy. The fragmented narrative, dotting around from childhood indiscretions to teenage rebellion and legitimate violence, is wrong-footing and unsettling. The sense of uncertainty is only heightened by the unreliable narrator. Abbey may be right about her child, but she’s also a person under tremendous strain, for whom obsession and substance dependency are constant companions.
The strength of the two central performances is key, and Hamilton and Edwards both execute their roles will startling realism. Hamilton, in particular, is extremely compelling as Abbey. Her portrait of a person at their wit’s end is utterly believable, especially in the intimate scenes in which she speaks directly to her video diary. With the lack of score and edit breaks, there would be nowhere for a weak performer to hide in these scenes. Fortunately, Hamilton never falters.
Edwards’ Jacob is oily and obsequious when he needs to be, but brimming with the threat of potential violence when alone with his mother. In the film’s third act, the plot demands that he become more threatening. While he lingers on the edge of hamming up his villainy, it doesn’t necessarily detract from his edgy teenager persona. His character is always performing, playing the charming goofball to his peers as easily as he plays the fiendish psychopath with his mother.
With its themes and found footage style, Mother of Monsters draws easy comparison with films like Elephant (2003), We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and the criminally underseen Zero Day (2002). Unlike these films, Mother of Monsters plucks plot elements straight from the headlines of today. From references to bump stocks and Charlottesville to evidence that Jacob is flirting with white nationalism, the film feels chillingly contemporary. While these themes aren’t explored in great depth, their presence helps to ground the scenario in our world, and undercuts the sense that these events happen in a vacuum.
The performances and shooting style contribute to a sense of immediacy that goes some way to proving found footage naysayers wrong. The film suffers a little from a baggy third act, where the film falls back into more familiar genre territory. However, the strength of the performances should carry the audience through the bumpy tonal shift. The end result is a terrifying modern parable that feels uncomfortably real.