Amy Nostbakken (top) and Norah Sadava (bottom) as Cassandra - Dada Films
Life, especially in that of a woman, is filled with moments in which we cannot react the way we want to because of politeness, civility, or the necessity of presenting ourselves as stable individuals. It’s one of the reasons why Mouthpiece, an original take on inner conflict, is immeasurably satisfying for those who have learned to grin and bear it — “it” being life.
Director Patricia Rozema loosely bases Mouthpiece on a theatrical play written by the film’s co-stars, and you can see the roots of this in how Mouthpiece chooses to manifest its protagonist’s multifaceted personality — Two actors, playing the same character; something seen on stage before, but rarely in cinema. There have been split personalities, doubles, psychological breakdowns, science-fiction tales, and twin twists, but nothing that’s an exact match of Mouthpiece’s off-trail route. Cassandra (played by both Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava) wakes up to a flood of missed calls and learns her mother (Maev Beaty) has suddenly passed away. Before there’s time to ask why two women are reacting to this news instead of one, the film starts visually explaining that they are the same.
Their movements are loosely in sync, their emotional states similar, and they both answer to the same name. While the people around Cassandra speak to her just one person, she receives the information through two different channels - both her. It might sound confusing, but it’s delicately put across that the actors are both playing the same person, not two different versions or psyches, but just a representation of Cassandra’s multiple layers and thought processes as a person.
Feeling as if there’s a multitude of different personas inside you may be a universal trait, but Mouthpiece takes a distinctively feminine route in coming to terms with this. It’s more focused on the grief Cassandra feels over her mother’s passing and the annoyances of womanhood than the fact the film is using two people to show it, which refreshingly makes the whole experiment feel like less of a show and more of an ingrained idea of consciousness. The project pivots around the relationship between mother and daughter as well as the expectations placed on women regarding how we should look and act. While Cassandra as a person is explored in the present, her mother makes appearances in the form of memories as Cassandra reminisces on her life.
My mother was so many things.
The film sometimes gets a little too caught up in the nostalgia, and can’t seem to quite decide on whether it wants Cassandra’s mother to be a snapshot or a fully fleshed out character stuck in the past, but the figure the film builds is one with reflections of both happy and sad times. Even though there’s not another actor there playing her, we know this woman also had many different sides to her.
While it might seem like Mouthpiece is pointing towards a concept of two versions of us being in our minds at all times by choosing to go with two performers to bring Cassandra to life — it more than hints towards this not being the case. For one, both of the portrayals are nuanced, and not utterly contrasting of one another. Sometimes, the taller Cassandra (Amy Nostbakken) is the one most lost in grief, but at other times the opposite is true. In another moment that expands on this idea, Catherine Lutes’ cinematography captures both actors in a dressing room, avoiding the store employee outside, they sit in a room with mirrors that create multiples of them, going on and on endlessly. It’s apparent that we aren’t seeing a woman split in two — we are seeing her infinite possibilities.
Sometimes the two manifestations are symbiotic, and at other times, they push against each other to the point of physically fighting in one breathtaking sequence. They’re always two sides of the same coin, but representative of different reactions to grief; and when one can’t handle something, the other takes over. While the part of Cassandra that drowns in loss stumbles away from her crying brother, also grieving for their mother, the shorter Cassandra (Norah Sadava) tries to console him. It’s one part of her needing to step back while the other fulfills sisterly duties. The shorter Cassandra also seems to be the one used as escapism from the suppressive nature of everyday politeness — crawling away from unwanted conversations — says “fuck you” to catcallers while her counterpart smiles, and is the voice of a youthful but self-assured woman. To say there’s something cathartic about that would be an understatement because Cassandra being represented by two people doesn’t mean she has to be restricted to one reaction.
The strange music pedaled by vocals and the exciting concept of the film is worth anyone’s time, but you do sadly feel said time as Mouthpiece feels longer than its short runtime should, and ultimately doesn’t find its footing between past and present. The portrait of the family dynamic gets lost in its pining, but Mouthpiece is a bold and well-acted shot at the almost impenetrable concept of self.
Mouthpiece will be released on the 31st of May.
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