Adrian DiGiovanni, Alex Mauer, bizarre, Bliss Holloway, breaking the fourth wall, cinema, Danielle Doetsch, dark comedies, Don Thacker, fake commericals, fake TV shows, feature-film debut, film reviews, films, Frank Henenlotter, Hannah Stevenson, horror, horror movies, Ian Folivor, insanity, isolation, Jeffrey Combs, Ken Brown, life coach, loneliness, Meet the Hollowheads, Motivational Growth, Movies, Pete Giovagnoli, Quentin Dupieux, real world, Robert Kramer, self-help, speaking to camera, talking mold, television, The Dark Backward, video games, weird films, writer-director-editor
Many films flirt with the weird: they sidle along the edges, dipping a toe into the bizarre here and there but never fulling committing to go all-in. Sure, we might get a few strange situations, maybe an oddball character or two but the end result is usually much more conventional than the starting destination. For most people, “weird” is a great vacation spot but not quite where they want the mail forwarded. Some films, however, cannonball right into the middle of bizarre, clipping the safety nets, making all the foolhardy moves and taking leaps of faith that make the Grand Canyon look like a sinkhole. For folks that like their films fearless, thought-provoking and original, however, there’s nothing quite like coming across a genuinely weird, legitimately “out there” movie, especially if it burns the rule book in the process.
As a lifelong, devoted follower of the weird in all of its strange, wonderful and disturbing forms, I’ve been lucky enough to see a handful of truly bizarre films over the years. Films like The Dark Backward (1989), Meet the Hollowheads (1989) and pretty much anything by Quentin Dupieux scratch a vital itch for me: the intense, burning need to be surprised, befuddled, confused and disturbed by the magic of moving pictures. I’m always looking for new films to add to this very special short-list but, as can be expected, authentically weird films don’t grow on Hollywood trees: they’re usually found on strange, deserted, creepy little patches of overgrown dirt, tucked away from the prying eyes of the mainstream and left to run riot on their own. Anytime I can uncover one of these strange little treasures, it’s an immediate cause for celebration. The newest reason to fire up the party cannon? Writer-director Don Thacker’s full-length debut Motivational Growth (2013), one of the strangest, most disturbing and flat-out coolest films I’ve seen in ages.
In a strange, deformed, asymmetrical nutshell, Motivational Growth is about Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni), a reclusive, shut-in loser and what happens after his beloved television, Kent, finally gives up the ghost. Suddenly left with no purpose to his pointless life, our eccentric host does the only sensible thing and decides to off himself, mixing up a big ol’ batch of chlorine gas in his bathtub. Turns out that Ian is as bad at dying as he is at living, however, and manages to muff the suicide attempt something fierce, falling and clocking his head on the bathroom floor, in the process. When he comes to, Ian finds out that he’s no longer alone: the enormous patch of revolting mold in his absolutely disgusting bathroom has gained sentient intelligence. Ian, meet…The Mold (Jeffrey Combs).
The Mold, as it turns out, is a chipper kind of fellow (we suppose?) and functions as sort of a life-coach to the helpless recluse, encouraging him to clean up his life in order to get all the things he desires, like his attractive next-door-neighbor, Leah (Danielle Doetsch). So far, so good: after all, if there’s anything Ian and his grubby life could use, it’s a little self-help spring cleaning. After all, he owes back-rent to his hulking, violent landlord, Box the Ox (Pete Giovagnoli), can’t afford to tip his grocery-delivery person (Hannah Stevenson), hasn’t shaved or bathed in god knows how long and seems to be the only person in the universe without a plasma TV. If bathroom mold can pull him out of rut, hey…more power to it, right?
The problem, of course, is that nothing is ever as straight-forward as it seems. Sure, The Mold is friendly, full of good cheer and knows his way around a pithy quip (“Out-there is running against Reagan in ’84…out-there is a wet T-shirt contest in a nursing home…this isn’t out-there: this is opportunity, Jack!”). On the other hand, The Mold also asks Ian to eat vile-looking “mushrooms” that pop out of it from time to time, punch holes in the walls and stuff them with raw meat and refrain from opening the front door or going outside. Ian also has to call The Mold by its proper name: forget the “The” and prepare for one severe tongue-lashing, Jack: The Mold don’t brook no crap, you hear?
As Ian finds himself more and more in thrall to The Mold, the very fabric of his home, his life and his reality begin to morph and change around him. Sinister repairmen enter the equation, the TV commercials begin to speak directly to him in some very disturbing ways and there appears to be…well…something growing out of the walls. Is Ian going crazy or is this all just part of the grand plan? Is The Mold the most laconic life coach this side of Matthew McC or does his droll personality hide a much darker, more evil side? Will Ian find true love with the equally strange Leah or is true what they say: nothing comes between a boy and his Mold?
Reading through the above synopsis, you might be inclined to imagine exactly what Motivational Growth has in store. You would be dead wrong, of course, regardless of what you initially imagined but that’s totally fine: there really is nothing that can (or should) prepare you for Thacker’s film. In fact, one of the most marvelous aspects of this thoroughly unhinged dark comedy is how radically unpredictable it is. Even when the film seems to give away a huge clue right around the midpoint, it ultimately reveals nothing at all: by the conclusion, it’s still anybody’s guess as to what’s going on, even with the seemingly obvious “clues.”
There really isn’t anything about Motivational Growth that plays out in a logical, predictable manner. Ian addresses the camera directly, although none of the other actors do, yet there’s never a consistent sense of breaking the fourth wall. We get inter-titles that seem to divide the film into chapters, although there’s no sense of organization or meaning to it. The film looks like it takes place in “our world,” yet everything is just off enough to situate us in some far-off, completely alien galaxy: none of the foodstuff resembles anything we’re used to (this aspect really reminded me of Meet the Hollowheads) and we never get a clear look outside the front door. At times, the film swings into inexplicable video-game-influenced images, a stylistic quirk that’s only reinforced by the cheerful, chiptune score…yet there’s never any reason or rational for it…it just happens. All of the acting is extremely broad and theatrical, yet the film never feels over-the-top or silly: if anything, there’s a consistent feeling of dread and encroaching doom that hangs over everything like a shroud, regardless of how manic the action on-screen gets.
Basically, nothing about Motivational Growth should work…yet it all ends up working spectacularly. While I’ll admit that the first 10 minutes was slightly rough going (Ian’s constant monologue takes a little getting used to…he pretty much never shuts up for the length of the film, although it gets much easier to take as it goes along), the film picks up speed frightfully quickly and the final half is an absolute blur of one insane, eye-popping monstrosity after the other. Once all of the elements have a chance to mix together, Thacker’s film becomes virtually unstoppable: it’s no lie to say that the final 30 minutes of the film are some of the most intense, self-assured and bat-shit insane moments that I’ve ever had the pleasure to witness. No lie: for his debut feature, Thacker comes across like a wizened veteran…think Frank Henenlotter at the height of his power and you have a pretty good idea.
At the center of the film, just like he’s at the center of Ian’s life, is genre great Jeffrey Combs’ towering vocal performance as The Mold. From his first line to his last, The Mold is an absolute treasure: I haven’t seen a film so instantly quotable since the first time I watched Pulp Fiction (1994). While the stop-motion on The Mold is excellent, it’s Combs who really brings the talking fungus to life: as weird as it sounds, it really is one of the most interesting characters to emerge in some time. For his part, Adrian DiGiovanni does a great job as Ian: while his verbal diarrhea can be tedious, at times, he fully inhabits every inch of the character like a second skin. He’s filthy, disgusting, strange, unpleasant…but he’s also weirdly sympathetic and, if you squint just right, probably looks more familiar than any of us would like to admit. While the character of Ian may stand for society in modern times, the individual in an increasingly homogeneous world or, quite possible, just folks who love to lick bathroom mold, the actor playing him always manages to keep a foot firmly in “our” reality, even when the rest of the film has leapt into a bottomless void.
On a side note, especially for folks who might be a bit more “sensitive” than most: Motivational Growth is an exceptionally disgusting film. While the movie has no shortage of violent moments (the scene that transitions from Ian “heroically” slicing a lead pipe in a Ginsu commercial to him carving other materials in the “real world” is, to say the least, bracing), there’s a nauseating aroma of body horror (ala early Cronenberg) that wafts through nearly every scene. I’m not too proud to say that I gagged several times during the film (suffice to say that poor Ian eats more rancid, “juicy” things during the course of the movie than any Fear Factor contestant ever did) and there’s one shot of a body that pretty much rewrites the rulebook on that sort of thing: if any of this sounds like it might not be your cup of tea, let me assure you…if you have to ask, it most certainly isn’t.
If you’ve got a strong stomach and a desire to see something completely fresh, invigorating and flat-out amazing, however, look no further than Motivational Growth. For a first time writer-director-editor, I found Don Thacker to be nothing short of a revelation: on the strength of this one entry, I’ve already gone ahead and reserved him a seat at the modern horror Round Table. After all, it’s not every day that you find a filmmaker who can effortlessly mix talking mold, a humorous suicide attempt, self-help gurus, television addicts and creeping, Lovecraftian existentialism into such a tasty treat. By the time you get to Box’s cheerful story about breaking chimp arms (“They won’t let you do it easy, either…they’re dirty fighters”) for fun and profit, one thing should be very clear: for better or worse, there just aren’t a lot of films like this out there. Here’s to hoping Thacker keeps pumping out these filthy jewels like clockwork: for lovers of weird cinema, we just might have found a new patron saint.