'Mouthpiece' Takes Audiences Inside Women's Double Lives

(Canada, 91 min.)
Dir. Patricia Rozema, Writ. Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava, Patricia Rozema
Starring: Amy Nostbakken, Norah Sadava, Maev Beaty, Jake Epstein, Paula Boudreau
Courtesy of TIFF
Patricia Rozema delivers another winner with Mouthpiece. The film might be her most ambitious and auteurist picture since her 1987 breakthrough feature I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. It’s an exciting reminder of why she’s one of the best voices in Canadian film. After the literary romp of Mansfield Park and the breathtaking dystopian vision of Into the Forest, Rozema looks inward with Mouthpiece, tightening the scope while pushing the boundaries. The film stars Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, who join Rozema in adapting their play Mouthpiece, as Cassandra, a woman torn between her two selves when she learns of the sudden death of her mother, Elaine.

The conceit of Mouthpiece, however, is that Nostbakken and Sadava both play Cassandra. Rozema (spoiler alert) doesn’t give audiences a clue when it comes to determining which woman is the “true” character, as the actors share Cassandra’s interactions with other characters depending on her mood. There is no consistency in terms of which one their onscreen peers address. They split Cassandra’s lines, sometimes finishing one another’s sentences and sometimes engaging in dialogue together, and their movements are impeccably choreographed beats as they frequently play scenes with synchronized actions.

Tall Cassandra and short Cassandra voice the woman’s insecurities by creating personalities that are often at odds with one another—Nostbakken, the taller one, is the more confident and outspoken half of the woman, while Sadava embodies Cassandra’s introverted traits—as she/they reflect upon Elaine and the terrible argument they had shortly before her death. The push-and-pull dilemma becomes twofold as the Cassandras weave between past and present to look back at key moments they experienced with Elaine, while some jaunts between reality and fantasy, including one thrilling musical number in a grocery store, let the young woman’s creative energy thrive as she finds the right words to pay tribute to her mother.

Elaine’s death prompts the Cassandras to consider their own path. Somewhat irked by the family’s decision to have her brother Danny (Jake Epstein) say the eulogy at the wedding even though she is the writer of the family and the eldest child, Cassandra insists on taking the challenge in an effort to make peace with Elaine. Cassandra looks back on her mother, who struggled to find fulfillment after leaving her professional career as an editor in order to raise her family. Played by Maev Beaty in a heartbreakingly memorable performance, Elaine has a palpable hunger in the scenes that revisit Cassandra’s childhood and watch the mother long to be able to fulfill both roles she loves. Being a working woman or a mother shouldn’t have to be a choice, though, and as Cassandra ages throughout the flashback scenes, Mouthpiece captures a stirring resentment between the daughter and her mother. The younger woman sees her mother as something of an antiquated failure, a woman who had some kids and resigned from life, whereas Elaine clearly views herself as someone who was cheated and robbed of her right to enjoy both roles at which she excelled.

The more time one spends in Cassandra’s head, the more one might be inclined to side with Elaine’s interpretation of events. However, the duality of the daughter’s struggle fully allows her to experience her mother’s dilemma. Here’s where the ruse of Mouthpiece comes together brilliantly: Rozema conveys how women are expected to live two lives. They’re the mother and the professional, whereas a father’s occupation is (traditionally) his only full time job. Women, particularly those of Elaine’s generation, might have been expected to choose between pursuing a career and having children, and Cassandra’s struggle with these two identities gives her a reality check of the sacrifices her mother made.

Mouthpiece is a risk that pays huge dividends as it fully realizes one woman’s interior life and struggles. Rozema’s direction strikes the right balance with the source material’s theatricality and the adaptation’s cinematic power. It’s stagy in one scene and cinematic the next with big moments yielding their way to smaller ones as the scope and vision of the film convey with inward/outward wrestling match between Cassandra’s two selves as she finds inner harmony. The performances by Nostbakken and Sadava are strong and the pair has excellent chemistry and comedic timing as they play up the character’s duality with a spirit of sisterhood. If there’s one fault to Mouthpiece, it’s that Nostbakken easily gets the bigger and showier part while Sadava makes do with Cassandra’s introspective moments; however, the bigger and better Cassandra also challenges a viewer to look at two women and decide which might embody one’s ideas of success and ambition. In taking viewers so intimately inside one woman’s struggle, Mouthpiece is one of Rozema’s best films yet.

Mouthpiece is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Lightbox.