In “Materna,” the debut feature by David Gutnik, four anguished New York women are connected by an incident on the subway involving — surprise, surprise — an unhinged man (Sturgill Simpson). Subtler and more focused than cloyingly grandiose interlocking dramas like “Crash,” it takes an interest — as the title suggests — in motherhood and mothering: the anxieties related to pregnancy and child-rearing; the guilt and frustrations born of generational rifts.
The film’s four sections recount the events leading up to each woman’s arrival to the same train car, and the outburst that takes place therein is visualized repeatedly from each one’s troubled head space.
Jean (Kate Lyn Sheil) is a VR artist whose mother constantly badgers her to freeze her eggs; Mona (Jade Eshete) is an actress struggling to connect with her estranged mother, a Jehovah’s Witness; Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) is a wealthy stay-at-home mom whose young son, she’s convinced, is being persecuted by his school’s politically correct agenda; Perizad (Assol Abdullina, who also serves as a co-writer along with Gutnik and Eshete), travels to her native Kyrgyzstan after the death of a relative, and spends time with her mother and grandmother.
Perizad’s story, buoyed by Abdullina’s weary, yet searching gaze, achieves an emotional tenor that the preceding vignettes lack, enfeebled as they are by dialogue — and text messages — that announce precisely the issues at stake.
Each section, however, leaves its mark: Jean’s story veers toward science fiction horror when artificial insemination takes on an eerily literal meaning; naturalistic camerawork lends Mona’s heated sessions with an acting coach a delirious intimacy; and the tension between Ruth and her ideologically opposed brother (Rory Culkin) erupts into an arresting, if predictably sketched, dramatic showdown.
If only their bond amounted to more. As it stands, the glue uniting these women of different ethnicities and backgrounds reads like a failed attempt to carve a more ambitious meaning out of individual stories already brimming with possibility.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on Apple TV, Google Play and other streaming services.
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