Swedish director takes us on a guilt trip around the world
Directed by Lukas Moodysson
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Michelle Williams, Marife Necesito
Like Crash or Babel, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson’s Mammoth employs a polyglot cast, a wide-ranging backdrop and assorted convergent storylines to ruminate on the sad state of interpersonal politics—in this case, modern parenthood and the worldwide socioeconomic factors that affect it both positively and negatively. I know. That sounds painfully weighty. But it’s not. Well, not entirely. For starters, Mammoth is stocked with roughly 175 percent less sledgehammer morality than Paul Haggis and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s heavy-handed (and undeservedly Oscar-winning) parables.
In the past, Moodysson has contributed films both lighthearted (the sunny commune comedy-drama Together) and heartrending (the brutal underage prostitution drama Lilya 4-Ever). Mammoth sits somewhere in the middle—cynical in its assessment of the human condition, yet hopeful for things like family, love and interconnectedness.
The film’s central plot thread wraps itself around Leo and Ellen Vidales (Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams), a well-to-do Manhattan couple with a 7-year-old daughter. While mom selflessly serves as an E.R. surgeon at an inner city hospital, dad signs multimillion-dollar deals as the founder of a hotshot video game company. All of this activity leaves little Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) to be raised by the family’s saintly Filipino nanny, Gloria (Marife Necesito). Gloria treats Jackie as if she were her own—ironic, considering Gloria has abandoned her own two sons back in Manila to earn a better living here in the U.S.
Although each of the film’s characters are connected, they act as if they’re in separate movies, spinning out in their own wide orbits and rarely interacting face-to-face. Mom wades elbow-deep in blood and domestic abuse working late nights in the E.R. Each troubling case seems to reinforce the knowledge that she’s become increasingly estranged from her daughter. Dad, meanwhile, is halfway around the world in Thailand working on a major business deal and trying to stay in touch with his family via cell phone. Over in the Philippines, Gloria’s preteen sons are becoming increasingly unhappy with their mother’s absence, unable to see the bright future she envisions for them all.
Though it’s clearly about the responsibilities of raising children in today’s tough world, Mammoth isn’t always as pointed as it could be. Starting with the titular metaphor (something about extinct species), it isn’t always easy to work out what Moodysson is getting at. There are times when the story meanders. Leo’s story segment about meeting and interacting with a prostitute in Bangkok takes a particularly long time to fire up. Is this a story about inequality? About economic exploitation of poor Third World nations by rich Americans? Is the Vidales family irresponsible for entrusting the day-to-day rearing of their only child to a relative stranger? Should they give Gloria the boot, quit their breakneck jobs and do the work themselves? Is Gloria a good parent for sacrificing so much to give her kids a better life? Or is she a bad parent for trading close proximity for a big payroll? Moodysson seems to waffle. Perhaps he finds merit in both arguments. That’s logical of him, but not very dramatic.
Despite its rather artificial construction and its heavy pall of upper-middle-class white guilt, Mammoth has plenty of high points. A scene in which Gloria’s mom drags her grandson to a (very real) Philippine dump for a tragic object lesson hits home as hard as anything Moodysson’s done. Keep in mind, Moodysson’s films aren’t always the most realistic things. They’re like documentaries threatening to morph into modern-day Grimm’s Fairy Tales on a moment’s notice. Mammoth has that same, precarious, “I’m not quite buying this” air. And yet it holds together thanks to some lovely cinematography (especially in the Thai segments) and some solid acting (particularly on the part of Necesito and the young boy playing her eldest son). Moodysson could have thought this through a little more. He could have begged for sympathy a bit less. He could have let the story unfold more organically. But when the man strikes a nerve, he does it resoundingly.