Patricia Rozema is no stranger to experimental cinematic worlds, instantly becoming an international cinematic darling with the everyday fantasy world of her 1987 debut, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, and the dream-noir of her follow-up, White Room. Now, through a career that has spanned a beloved Jane Austen adaptation (1999’s Mansfield Park), a screen treatment of a popular children’s book character (Kit Kittredge: An American Girl) and a moody detour into post-apocalyptic sci-fi (Into the Forest), the iconic Canadian director is back with one of her most radical visions yet.
Mouthpiece started as a theatrical production, of course, the brainchild of co-writers and stars Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava. Premiering in Toronto in 2015, the two-woman show quickly took the local stage scene by storm with its highly innovative and meticulously choreographed look at the modern female condition. This eventually led to further runs all over North America and Europe and increased celebrity attention, with no less than Jodie Foster herself helping bring the production to L.A. for a couple of shows.
The film version takes the same basic narrative and expands it, setting the avant-garde theatrics of the stage amongst the more “real” environment of the city, albeit without losing any of the ideological or emotional impact. The story is simple – twenty-something writer Cassandra, who is played by both Nostbakken and Sadava at the same time, must make arrangements for a funeral and deal with her grief in the 48-hour period after her mother’s sudden death. The approach, however, is a performance feat for the ages, as both sides of Cassandra continually express her opposing inner voices as she hurriedly journeys all over Toronto organizing her mother’s affairs while figuring out what to say for the eulogy and generally dealing with the complicated feelings and rocky relationship between them that she never reconciled.
Nostbakken and Sadava stun with this complex dynamic, just as they did on the stage, constantly switching roles between the inner voice and the outer appearance of Cassandra, often numerous times within the same scene. Their dialogue between each other (or monologue, I guess) overlaps and contradicts, portraying Cassandra’s conflicting thoughts on everything from what to wear to being catcalled on the street. They expertly nail the chaotic brain of a contemporary young woman worn out from years of being simultaneously condescended to and depended on for emotional support. And as offbeat as it is, the dynamic feels perfectly organic, at times becoming a strange buddy comedy where the buddy is just one person.
In Rozema, the two actresses have found the perfect collaborator to bring this unique vision to the screen, with the material serving somewhat as a companion piece to I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing, a film that also explored female interiority in surreal ways. The director seamlessly integrates flashbacks that provide us with powerful context on Cassandra’s views of her mother (played by theatre vet Maev Beaty in an achingly heartfelt performance) throughout her childhood and upbringing. And as she’s done in all of her Toronto-set films, Rozema turns the city into a living, breathing dream world, engaging with its beauty and its bleakness all at once.
What could have been a gimmick in the hands of lesser artists becomes one of the most powerful cinematic character studies in recent years.