Inside Her Head
But once you break the broom, where do you go from there? That’s what Penelope must face in this film. If you are not cleaning the house and being a mother, what are you doing? Who are you without the broom?
“What am I in here for?” Penelope (Shannon Plumb) has just exited the frame, gone to the kitchen and leaving her two sons, Cody and Walker (five-year-old Cody and seven-year-old Walker Cianfrance) alone at the dining room table. They continue with what they’re doing, which is to say, squealing and laughing and tossing food. And Penny, unseen, continues with what she’s doing, which is to say, wondering what she’s doing.
This little bit pretty much sums up the dilemma facing Penny in Towheads, Plumb’s new film, screening 27 March at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films, followed by a Q&A with Plumb. She loves her boys, and they’re adorable, towheaded like their mom, playful and eager to please and rambunctious. When they’re not at school, they’re with her. And when they’re at school, she’s most often still looking after them, shopping for food and gear, cleaning the apartment, getting a bike repaired, washing dishes or stirring a pot full of bubbling something. And when the school day ends, she’s waiting to pick them up, their toys and extra jackets and snacks all packed into a stroller that she careens down the sidewalk like a battering ram.
It’s not that Penny resents what she’s doing. It’s just that she’s losing track of herself without them, without the many tasks that make up being a mom. These tasks shape her routine, certainly, the external look and labor of her day, revealed in short bursts of scenes throughout the film. She sweeps and wipes, she cleans the toilet, she sits in a chair while Cody and Walker tie her up with her own pantyhose. For many of these moments, the camera observes her from a medium close-up, the angle straight-on, no tricks or signals that you’re inside her head.
And yet, here you are: Penny interviews a babysitter, asking questions from offscreen. The girl’s dressed in black, her mascara gothy and her eyes cast down, awkward and shy and unnerving too. She balances a teacup on her knee, as Penny wonders whether she’s ever done this before, or whether she might provide a reference or whether she likes kids in any capacity. “I have a lot of people I have to look at,” Penny sums up, encouraging her to head out. “I can show you the way to the door,” she offers. The girl seems baffled. Penny remains unseen.
It’s weird and regular at the same time, this moment, absurd and predictable. Penny’s hoping to find some help for her day so she can “have some time” for herself. With this time, she might pursue her acting career, indicated in the several auditions she attends, none fruitful. (When one of the kids asks, “What’s an audition?”, she explains, “It’s like when you run really, really fast on your own, and then find out a couple of days later whether you won the race”). Penny’s auditions are all nightmares, of course. The sets are uncomfortable, the directors are rushed and rude, the products are insulting. Or, in the more explicitly surreal version, the theater is black and the curtain is red: “out, out, dam spot,” she begins, before remembering she has to go to the store and buy sponges for just that purpose.
Still, she’s encouraged by her husband Matt (Plumb’s real life husband, the earnest and adventurous filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, appearing here in shadow or with his back to the camera or his face obscured by plants and kitchen utensils). Or, encouraged in the way she might imagine such encouragement from a man who’s busy or distracted all day. When he finds her cleaning et bathroom, “Sexy” printed on the seat of her sweatpants (that is, he comes into the frame behind her, a silhouette and an additional framing element, alluding to her tight frames, everywhere), Matt answers her blunt, childlike questions: yes, she’s beautiful, and yes, she’s “great at something,” namely and exactly, “Being a mom.” You see how Penny might feel too narrowly defined. And so she goes forth into the world, auditioning again: she tapes toilet paper over her breasts, dons a mustache and khakis, and tries out to be a sidewalk Santa Claus. Asked to perform her ho-ho-ho, she conjures a faux jolly nasally sort of utterance that leaves her questioner with eyes wide: “That has to be the sorriest ho-ho-ho I have ever heard,” he laughs. Whether she gets the job or not is hard to say, as she next appears on the sidewalk, in a red suit with Christmas lights across her chest, dancing and popping in front of an urban mural and graffiti.
Whether this is Penny’s fantasy or not is less the film’s question than what her options might be. How can she imagine herself as an actor or a mom, as a man or as a year-round Santa? Does she see Matt with another woman? Does she imagine herself as a capable, beautiful, courageous or even mildly confident individual? Might she be a baseball player or a hunter, a football player or a firefighter? As she conjures all these possible roles, she might or might not be locked in a room, door barred with red tape, Matt imploring her to come out, Walker slipping a drawing he’s made through the crack beneath. Matt is fretful and put-upon, the boys love mommy.
It’s fun and hectic and exhausting being a mom, you can see that much. But what you’re also seeing, along with the work and the play, is the internal state of being a mom. And that’s the lovely, resilient brilliance of Towheads, its sly immersion into Penny’s experience, what she feels—or what she may feel—as well as what she does. If an easy (and distant) referent might seem Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970), others are less haunting, more comic, maybe sitcom moms, maybe Sarah Jessica Parker. The point might be that no model can suffice, that the day-to-day invention of being a mom is always new and imperfect and surprising. Amid all the chaos and the illogic of each mother’s day, this makes sense.