You don’t get to decide.
Four women connected by an incident on the New York City subway … that’s the pitch courtesy of the synopsis for David Gutnik‘s Materna. Rather than make this “psychological portrait” of their reaction to said experience, however, he and co-writers Assol Abdullina and Jade Eshete flip things upside down to express the emotional struggles these women face en route to that fateful convergence. How have their choices led them to that train car and how will they shape their actions once the powder-keg that is Paul (Sturgill Simpson) finally explodes? The answer to those questions might surprise you because our introductions to Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil), Mona (Eshete), Ruth (Lindsay Burdge), and Perizad (Abdullina) seem “normal” enough. But that’s the thing about appearances. They tend to be deceiving.
Is it fear that binds them when Paul’s voice rises and anxiety amongst the other passengers reaches out to grab hold of us too? That’s the assumption because we don’t have anything else to work with yet. It might also be what we believe would happen to us if we were in their shoes. The only truth we know, however, is that we don’t know anything. We don’t know the pain they are feeling. We don’t know the sorrow, anger, and guilt that’s running through their heads at a volume that may in fact be completely drowning out Paul’s presence. We can’t know anything within a world that has been built upon our voluntary, communal detachment from humanity via isolation, technology, and/or bigotry. It’s too much to bear.
So Gutnik, Abdullina, and Eshete backtrack. They rewind to provide context for Jean’s stoic exterior hiding a bubbling rage, Mona’s compassion, Ruth’s discomfort, and Perizad’s calm release. We witness Jean’s desperate need for support opposite a mother who refuses to truly listen; Mona’s carefully considered façade masking the betrayal and hurt she’s been taught to hold at bay so as not to squander the work she’s put forth to get her foot in the acting world’s door; Ruth’s willful, shameful, and vociferous denial of her privilege courtesy of the learned desire to preserve it at the expense of the morality that threatens it; and Perizad’s loss of identity and connection to a past that cannot sustain her ambitions for more. The filmmakers are exorcizing demons in every scene.
And they do it with a fearless and necessary intent to touch on every topic that feeds our highly politicized climate’s desire to divide through fear. Abortion, religion, race, entitlement, Black Lives Matter, suicide, discrimination, emotional repression, toxic masculinity—the kitchen sink has been thrown. Can it feel like too much at times? Sure. But I think we need that. We need to confront these issues head-on and acknowledge that we aren’t alone in our fight to curb hate in others as well as in ourselves. It’s why having Abdullina and Eshete to provide insight into their lived experiences that Gutnik can’t know is crucial. We need their voices as POC women to flesh out the complexities that supply extra weight to what might seem like familiar problems.
That both women also perform the semi-autobiographical roles they’ve helped write only adds to their impact and authenticity. Eshete is unforgettable as her Mona wrestles with abandonment and her mother’s emotional coercion tactics opposite a new script that should let her dig deep and express the justified fury roiling inside. Abdullina is great as Perizad’s transplant returned home to bury an uncle that they all left to fend for himself in order to pursue their own dreams—selfish or not. Add Sheil’s Jean becoming numb to a world trying to tell her to compromise and Burdge’s Ruth realizing she’s let her ivory tower consume her to the point where her misguided righteousness has helped breed the hate she says doesn’t exist and you’re getting a masterclass in acting.
We need them to be this good too because the scenes themselves can sometimes get intense enough to flirt with try-hard moralizing. Ruth’s internal battle pitting the rhetoric of her rich Republican husband (Michael Chernus) against her empathetic socialist brother (Rory Culkin) while her son (Jake Katzman) confusedly adopts the worst traits of both is probably the most egregious, but it works in context with the whole. Mona’s and Perizad’s stories are the most nuanced with Jean’s one-woman show proving the most intriguing both because she’s able to transparently expose her vulnerability with us due to no one else being around and because of where that self-sufficiency takes her in the final frame. They each ground what’s occurring within their vignettes in ways that make them universally relatable.
The end is shocking less because of what happens (it certainly makes sense once we have the full scope considering we’ve only seen bits and pieces from different perspectives as chapter prologues to each character’s independent trajectory) than its sudden, effortless arrival. Is it a bit manipulative to shield us from this result for the duration before unleashing it without warning or subsequent fallout? Maybe. That’s kind of how the whole was constructed, though. It’s about segmenting our public sphere from our private spheres and how certain triggers can tear that wall down in an instant. It’s moments of abject fright where impulse takes over in ways that show who we are beneath the images we present to the world. Materna‘s nexus point lives up to that billing.