M.O.M. Mothers of Monsters. 2020. Directed & Written by Tucia Lyman.
Starring Melinda Page Hamilton, Bailey Edwards, Janet Ulrich Brooks, Julian de la Celle, & Ed Asner.
98 minutes / Not Rated
Horror / Thriller
DISCLAIMER: The following article contains a few spoilers
Tucia Lyman has directed/produced a bunch of television, and it’s always interesting to see someone who primarily works in TV make the shift to film. Not all filmmakers gravitate well from one to the other, though many— usually, the best of them— can shift between the two: Jane Campion, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Lexi Alexander, and other great directors have done good television. Lyman has certainly done a fine, unsettling job with her feature film debut, M.O.M Mothers of Monsters.
The film, using a found footage style, tells a story of mother and son perpetually locking horns. Abbey Bell (Melinda Page Hamilton) is a 42-year-old single mom trying to deal with an out of control son, 16-year-old Jacob (Bailey Edwards). She films everything because her boy’s prone to ‘monstering out.’ She shows us not only her inner life, but the inner life of Jacob. What she discovers is terrifying.
Lyman’s film is a stunner. She doesn’t rely on being graphic. She ratchets up the tension until it’s beyond uncomfortable. And the film doesn’t quite forget that life’s full of moral ambiguity, leaving a lot of space for the viewer to make their own judgements about what’s happening (for a while), as well as whether the choices Abbey makes are the best ones. The biggest focus for Lyman is on the ethical/social dilemmas in which mothers find themselves, specifically when raising boys growing up into dangerous young men.
Many memorable mothers exist in horror: Norma Bates, Chris MacNeil, Pamela Voorhees, Joe Spinell’s mom in Maniac, to name but a few, some the mothers of psychos; some psychos themselves, others relentless fighters against various horror movie forces. The reason M.O.M. Mothers of Monsters stands out and has such a powerful impact is, above all else, because of its focus on Abbey’s harrowing struggle.
“I don’t understand why there aren’t
more resources out there to deal with this kinda thing.”
The film’s screenplay draws heavily on real life precursors that suggest young men are turning into budding psychopaths who’ll go on to commit violent acts. Lyman doesn’t wholly go for all cliches. Right from the start we understand Jacob has a long history, since childhood, of causing harm to animals. The video in the beginning of a little Jacob states he “hurt” an animal, and later a video features him near a birdhouse with adults screaming for him to step away further suggesting the boy’s penchant for hurting small things. All compounded by a sick, lasting interest in dissecting his reptile/rodent pets.
Worse is Jacob’s interest in guns.
His mother finds gun magazines in his room and later watches nervously as she sees him contemplating going into a gun store. One of the scarier things about Jacob is he’s not just a likely psychopath about to fully emerge from his cocoon, he could go a few ways: maybe he’ll be a serial killer, maybe he’ll be a school shooter (something alludes to at one point, joking or not). All these violent tendencies and his good ole American gun fetish culminates in angry, overt racism, manifested physically with the purchase of Nazi memorabilia. Jacob even names his reptiles Adolf, showing off an eerie Hitler obsession that rightly appals his mother. Couple these elements with the scene where Jacob’s stomping around the house and in the background a TV news report is talking about the proliferation of school shooters in America, and a powerful social realism pervades nearly every scene.
Something else that caught me was the scene with Jacob dropping a brick off an overpass and causing an accident. We don’t know the aftermath, it’s only a short 30-second moment (at maximum). It’s a chilling scene to show, an early indication Jacob is quite capable of doing evil things. More importantly, it’s reminiscent of a few real life cases, like the 2017 Interstate 75 rock-throwing deaths resulting in the deaths of 32-year-old Kenneth White and in Michigan and 22-year-old Marquise Byrd in Ohio. Most of all it brings to mind the case of Richard Wade Cooey and Clint Dickens which began with a rock tossed over a bridge and eventually led to the rape, stabbing, torture, and murder of two young women, 21-year-old Wendy Offredo and 20-year-old Dawn McCreery.
Not hard to picture Jacob growing up to be Cooey. Maybe he’s one already.
“… that’s what fathers are for.”
Ultimately, the film is more about Abbey than it is Jacob. A large theme is the judgement society sets against parents, in specific the mothers. At its core, Lyman’s story concerns the toll motherhood takes on Abbey in a number of ways. She struggles with her ethics on how to deal with a burgeoning psychopath son, a battle unto itself. A telling moment illustrating feminist stakes in Abbey’s story is when she’s talking to the camera early on and jokes about her age, showing us how mothers, as women, have to worry about so much extraneous bullshit that men/fathers don’t have to: conceptions of their age/what it ‘means’ and their looks, and their mothering. Like being a mom isn’t hard enough, women deal with a whole other layer of judgement heaped onto an already piled plate.
Another compelling moment involves Abbey’s mother, Millie (Janet Ulrich Brooks). Lyman draws out the internalised misogyny in certain older ladies through Millie by how sweet Nana reacts towards her daughter. At one point, Abbey tells her mother about Jacob getting aggressive and violent with her. Millie passes it off as “wrestling” and says it’s what “fathers are for,” making obvious a vast generational divide between how these two women envision gender roles and family dynamics operating. It also deepens our understanding of Abbey and makes the reasons why exactly she’s resorted to capturing everything on video a complex web of family and social issues.
Without spoiling too much, there’s a moment around the finale of the film when Abbey dons a headpiece of coat hangers. The imagery truly rocked me, and there’s lots to unpack. First, the coat hanger is an image directly linked with the struggle for female bodily autonomy, infamously being the method many poor young woman have resorted to/had forced on them in lieu of access to safe, legal abortions. Secondly, Abbey wears the gnarled coat hangers like a crown. This calls to mind the crown of thorns placed on Christ’s head while the Romans tortured him prior to the Crucifixion. The Jesus imagery fits because, in the end, Abbey becomes somewhat of a martyr for mothers everywhere. She figuratively lives on, too— again like a Christ figure— as her video manifesto goes out online for other mothers to watch, to learn, to follow.
No doubt M.O.M. Mothers of Monsters will divide people. Some young men will likely scoff at the film, particularly those who have a streak of misogyny in them like the utterly petulant Jacob. Hopefully more people, of all genders, will see this and root out the same relevant themes as myself. I grew up as an early drug addict, who also later became an alcoholic (10 years clean+sober), and I gave my own parents enough grief without being a psychopath. I imagine my mother in Abbey’s place, how the deep love she feels for me would influence her sense of ethics were I to become somebody like Jacob. Because, though I love and cherish my father, our mothers literally create us inside them, carry us for 9 month and protect us with their body, and then have to experience hours of pain to birth us into the world— it’s something nobody other than mothers can understand, just like the dilemmas they’ll face when it comes to the moral character of their Jacobs.
Melinda Page Hamilton and Bailey Edwards are mesmerising in their roles. They feel like a real life troubled mother-son duo, and the very, very fleeting affectionate moments Abbey and Jacob share weigh heavy with raw emotion. Their performances are the focal point of Lyman’s film— without them, there’d be little outside the script to reach out grab us. But that’s the purpose of what Lyman is doing, immersing us in a sense of realism by use of the found footage sub-genre, drawing on actual social issues and presenting them without allegory, and through her searing leads. What results is an unforgettable little film that touches on important aspects of life that affect us all, and the film helps prove it’s sometimes more affecting to show how desperately disturbing things are through art.