Thursday, January 7, 2010

It's small, but it sure is Mammoth

You won't easily find Mammoth. It recently opened in New York City for a limited run. There is currently no upcoming DVD release date, but in the coming months, you might find it at Blockbuster or on Netflix. For the masses, your best chance to view the film is if you have cable -- you should be able to view it On Demand for less than the price of a typical megaplex ticket.

My advice: do whatever it takes.

Mammoth is the story of parents who are separated from their children. Some of them are rich Americans who feel disconnected from their own reality. Some of them are poor foreigners who are forced away from their reality by the pain of necessity. Their stories are the same, and yet totally different. And this film is the complex dissection of their similarities and differences, their consistensies and contradictions.

Gael Garcia Bernal and Michelle Williams play Leo and Ellen, who live in New York with their only daughter. Leo is the mastermind behind a massively successful online gaming website and Ellen is an ever-on-the-clock ER doctor. Their daughter is more or less raised by Gloria (Marife Necesito), her live-in nanny, who herself has two sons living without their home in the Philippines. Gloria left her children by necessity; Leo and Ellen do it by choice. Yet there are complexities in the stories of the two American parents. Sure, Ellen could choose to stay home since her husband clearly makes millions through his gaming site, but she works in a demanding profession and touches every aspect of human emotion almost every night on the job. She wants to feel that joy, that pain, that life. Leo goes on a trip to Thailand to make a huge business deal and abandons his business meetings to have an "authentic experience." He meets a local prostitute and pays her not for sex, but to simply be his companion, and then to promise she will not ever sell her body again. He wants to touch something he feels is out of reach; he wants to feel "real" people in "real" circumstances with "real" pain. He wants to buy reality.

Complexities abound at every turn. Leo and Ellen clearly love their daughter and one another, but have been conditioned -- be it via their upbringing or education or the tempting pull of American hubris -- to be controlled by their ultra-modern, ultra-hip, ultra-rich lifestyle, which dictates they stay entirely focused on their work, which in turn dictates they disconnect from the family they love, and thus from the world around them. Gloria talks to her sons on the phone and tells them she is working for them...but also tells them she will not see them until they are fully grown. Her separation provides them with some money but deprives them of the ever-important parental presence. And the Thai prostitute, Cookie (Rum Srinikornchot), accepts Leo's offer but knows she will not, cannot follow through -- she has her own family to support, and no matter how Leo tries to fully experience life though Cookie's eyes, he will never be able to understand how differently his culture values life, people, and possessions than Cookie's culture. Or Gloria's culture. Or any number of other cultures. The differences abound from one culture to the next, from one person to the next...and yet we are all human and we are all striving to achieve the same things. The same, yet different. That is the defining beauty of Mammoth.

Lukas Moodysson, the Swedish filmmaker whose previous films include Together and Lilya 4-Ever, is the writer and director of Mammoth, and his first English-language picture is one of his most complex and subtle. The film is a globe-spanning narrative, not unlike Babel, but what separates Mammoth -- indeed, what elevates it above other similar-themed pictures -- is that it doesn't depend on grand catastrophes to link its characters, doesn't use melodrama and startling events as a dramatic crutch. The characters are drawn, their lives set in motion, and the stories that unfold are entirely dependent on the believable, at times seemingly insignificant choices each character makes. And from these choices, these decisions, these indications of each character's fears, desires, and limitations, we see how big the world is...and how small.

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