A man playing with windup toys. An empty theater meant to seat 30 people. While these images seem to have nothing in common, you can experience them both by hiking over to Criterion Cinemas for a screening of “Momma’s Man.” Directed by Azazel Jacobs, this short indie flick is collecting glowing praise from film festivals and critics alike. But be warned: Audiences accustomed to pulse-pounding superhero movies will doze through this slow yet powerful character study of a grown-up Peter Pan.
“Momma’s Man” centers around the flabby and expressionless Mikey (Matt Boren melts into the role), who leaves his wife and baby behind in sunny California to spend the holidays with his hipster parents in New York City. What begins as an innocent visit, however, morphs into a disturbing regression toward childhood. Mikey delays his flight home and cloisters himself within his decrepit bedroom, obsessing over memorabilia such as a superhero cape, comic books, a high school breakup letter and self-penned song lyrics comically reminiscent of Adam Sandler in The Wedding Singer (“Fuck you, fuck you, I hope you die too”). Meanwhile, he ignores his parents’ and wife’s repeated efforts to awaken him to his responsibilities as a husband and father.
Jacobs enfolds the viewer in this coming-of-age tale with a skill that belies his inexperience. Silence and delicate sounds grasp and hold the audience’s attention — a rare achievement in a blockbuster culture dominated by excess. For example, when Mikey first calls the airport intending to book a flight home, his occasional soft sighs burst through the silence as heartbreaking indicators of his reluctance to leave. Meanwhile, another emotionally wrenching scene shows Mikey awkwardly standing apart from a group of high school students after buying them beer. With a few simple glances and shuffling of feet, he shows his longing to be included yet his inability to belong. This scene epitomizes the film’s central preoccupation: the frustration of straddling the divide between youth and adulthood.
Although simple, the story of “Momma’s Man” is far from small, due in part to phenomenal performances. Mikey’s parents are played by the director’s own parents, Flo and Ken Jacobs, who immerse themselves in their roles — a hovering, desperate-to-please mother who tries to solve Mikey’s problems by cooking for him, and a shrewd father who patiently waits for the right moment to intervene. Meanwhile, the apartment setting mirrors Mikey’s retreat from reality. His bed in the attic resembles a cage, the apartment is lit with harsh fluorescent bulbs rather than natural light, piles of junk encroach upon Mikey as he spends more and more time in his room. The use of a handheld camera also contributes to the apartment’s overall sense of imprisonment, whereas the few scenes with Mikey’s wife alone in California bring a sigh of relief with their steady shots, bright sunlight and open spaces.
Clutter is the only major problem with “Momma’s Man.” Jacobs wants the constantly roving camera and complex scenery to transform the apartment into a living character, but he takes this idea slightly too far. With such busy cinematography, the viewer spends more energy searching for a central focus than paying attention to the nuances of character development. Overall, a less self-indulgent approach would have given more emotional punch to its universal story about a little boy who doesn’t want to grow up.