Fraught parent-child relationships have been a longstanding subject in any form of art, especially cinema. Fathers and sons clash, mothers and daughters commiserate at odds, fathers and daughters drift, and mothers and sons unpack that particular relationship with varying degrees of self-awareness. Mother, Couch, an adaptation of the novel Mamma i soffa by Jerker Virdborg, is the latest edition of the “mommy issues” canon.
Writer-director Niclas Larsson makes his feature film debut with Mother, Couch, and the premise is simple enough. The mother, played by Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist), wanders into a furniture store, plops down on a green couch, and refuses to leave. Her three children, David (Ewan McGregor), Linda (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans), arrive to attempt to convince her to leave the store but are met with little success. The narrative primarily follows the youngest son David as he grapples with his complicated family history while also attempting to balance his own role as a husband to his wife (Lake Bell) and father to his kids.
Much of the tension of Niclas Larsson’s film is derived from slowly discovering the intricacies of the relationships between the siblings and their mother. There’s the larger mystery of why she refuses to leave the couch, and thus, what it would take for her to get up. However, as the plot progresses, questions regarding the present dilemma in the store fade away as the audience becomes far more concerned with the past. This isn’t a movie that asks why the mother won’t leave the sofa, but how long her son is willing to cling to her as she refuses, and why.
The majority of Mother, Couch takes place within the confines of the furniture store, as if it were a stage play. Even though it’s only preparing for its opening, cinematographer Chayse Irvin (Blonde, BlacKkKlansman) establishes a lived-in feeling within the single location, utilizing familiar and vintage visuals that evoke the past. The film’s tone is slightly off-putting, and while it doesn’t escalate as the runtime progresses, it builds a surreal atmosphere that contrasts with the comfort the shop setting is meant to evoke. When a few of its scenes step out of the furniture store, Mother, Couch loses a degree of its cohesiveness as it works far better as a tight story within its already established confines.
There is one scene in particular that takes place on a beach. It’s meant to contrast David’s relationship with his mom with the relationship he has with his kids. For what this scene adds to the narrative, an example of David also becoming short with his children, it detracts from the flow. There’s almost an otherworldly quality to the furniture store, an unsettling strangeness that culminates with the runtime, and to leave that space halfway through the movie interrupts the tonal momentum. Remaining in the same setting after a certain point would not have been stifling, less visually interesting, or less distinct because it would have easily maintained the pace and tone, leading to a smoother viewing experience. If this scene with his daughter really needed to happen in another location, it could have come much earlier in the story.
The entirety of Mother, Couch rides on Ewan McGregor’s weighted shoulders as David, and he successfully carries it successfully and then some. David’s patience is wearing thin, yet he has no choice but to be patient. For all the awkward choices when it comes to pacing, the character work on display is exceptional and most of the dialogue is effective. The best moments come from any of the emotionally stilted siblings trying to broach the topic of their history with another or their relationships. Even with a limited amount of screen time, both Lara Flynn Boyle (Twin Peaks) as David’s older chain-smoking sister and Rhys Ifans (House of the Dragon) as his older brother craft an entire person out of the lines they’re given. More importantly, they’re all distinct with a personality as far from each other as the characters are distant.
Taylor Russell, of Bones and All and Escape Room fame, plays Bella, the young daughter of the shop owner (F. Murray Abraham). She is an excellent fresh face in the cast, and delivers her lines with the perfect degree of knowing innocence. Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn commands the matriarch of the movie with an unforgiving candor, a brutality that’s wounding from screen to seat, perfect fuel driving forward the emotional turmoil of the film.
Despite the stellar cast ensemble, Mother, Couch mishandles surrealism as a narrative tool. There are not many blatant uses of it, yet when surrealism is present, it muddles thematics rather than clarifying them. Some strange elements are seemingly added just to lend a sense of tension or propulsion to the plot where it’s simply not needed. Instead of focusing on symbolism or coded messages, it would’ve been much more effective if the script cut to the heart of what the characters wished to say and just said them. Perhaps with a more refined pen, the surrealism of Mother, Couch could have landed stronger. It’s not impossible to introduce surrealist elements in a way that sharpens the intent of the film, but here they are superfluous at best.
Mother, Couch is not an uncommon picture. Filmmaker Niclas Larsson’s debut feature deals with personal subject matter while trying to make itself distinct with offputting, unnatural elements. But among its contemporaries, it succeeds, primarily due to the strength of its performances and how they embody the script. Without them, the movie would have fallen apart. However, regardless of its tonal and pacing issues, Mother, Couch is still a very engaging cinematic experience. Larsson’s film has something visceral to say, and though it does not wound deep enough to keep the audience thinking about it, it is offering a listen nonetheless.