There have been moments in my life, much like yours I’d guess, where a song, piece of music, poem, TV programme or film has touched me in a way it may have escaped me previously. Life events, big or small, reflected in what we see, hear, and how we feel. Mouthpiece, directed by Patricia Rozema, is – for me – a perfect example of this type of serendipity.
Cass (played by Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava), a single, fiercely independent writer, is busy living her life in wintery Toronto – until, one morning, she receives a series of voicemails letting her know her mother, Elaine (Maev Beaty), has passed away suddenly.
As if waking from a nightmare, Cass has to now navigate the world outside her apartment, knowing her mother is no longer out there, somewhere, living her own life. Visited by her brother Danny (Jake Epstein), she’s told that he’s been asked by the family to give the eulogy at the funeral, as Cass cannot be trusted after causing a scene at the previous year’s Christmas party. As the family’s writer, she’s determined to do a good job and make the eulogy her own, but as we follow Cass around town, arranging flowers, snacks and the casket, we’re privy to her planning…and it’s not going well.
What follows is an intense 48 hours as Cass is tasked with arranging the saddest ceremony she’ll ever live through, while juggling the questions and queries of the people around her (“What type of wood would your Mother have liked for her casket?”), their expectations and grief, alongside her own.
Director Rozema (Into the Forest, Mansfield Park) was introduced to the story by her daughter. Adapted from a play written by Nostbakken and Sadava – the two Cass’ – Patricia was so impressed with what she’d seen, she agreed to help write the screenplay. And it’s easy to see why she was impressed.
From the start, I was pulled in by seeing double. Amy and Norah play two contrasting halves of Cass – one of discipline, rules, stability; one of mania, unpredictability, outspokenness. On waking to hear that her mother has died, Cass’ two halves experience very different reactions; sitting, stoic in bed, in silence, the other throwing herself around the apartment, screaming. It’s bewildering to witness.
This mirror-ness is some of the smartest direction and acting I’ve ever seen, and was – at times – incredibly moving to witness. It reminds us as audience members that it’s okay to feel feelings, something Cass herself struggles with, so much so she seeks the affection and touch of others to relieve the weight. During a loveless sex scene, with the other half of Cass watching from the sidelines, she struggles to quieten the thoughts racing through her brain – and out of her mouth – leaving her collapsed in a heap, crying hard. Contrast this with the colourful (imagined, almost like an hallucination) musical sequence performed while buying snacks for the wake, Cass singing about her mother’s outdated version of feminism, and her wasted life spent bringing up her children. It’s a sight to behold…and to process.
As Nostbakken and Sadava move Cass through the story, we watch as she slowly comes to terms with her mother’s own duality. Cut with flashbacks to Elaine’s earlier life – before children, after children, at work, at home – we see that she herself was a cacophony of emotions and personalities, and it’s taken her death for her daughter to realise this.
This is all played out against a haunting score, full of ethereal wailing and breathing which, at times, was overwhelming to listen to. The quiet, atmospheric noise partnered with Cass’ waves of grief and anger – a genius move. And don’t get me wrong, the film is sad, but it’s also darkly funny, bitingly sarcastic, whip-smart. It’s fair to say I loved it.
Rozema said about the story, ‘I often feel double-ness, twoness, a conflict inside myself. Lots of people do. This dichotomy has never been presented physically on film. Externalising this feeling and making it a physical fact, felt fresh and completely emotionally honest.‘ Those final three words perfectly summarise Mouthpiece, a completely emotionally honest story of love and loss. As someone moving through a big life event right now, I’ve been reminded that my parents and family are all their own main characters, their own dualities, and that I should appreciate them for who they are, right this second. Cass and Elaine have taught me that.