Mabel, Nicholas Ma
Photo: Courtesy of SFFILM Festival

Debut Drama ‘Mabel’ Rejects the ‘Matilda’-Like Dream of Childhood

Nicholas Ma’s humorous, warm and sensitive directorial feature debut, Mabel, embraces the messy uncertainty of life, for children and adults.

Nicholas Ma
19 April 2024 (SSFF)

Nicholas Ma’s directorial feature debut, Mabel, isn’t a noisy or vigorous film. Instead, it addresses its themes and ideas with quiet confidence. Mabel’s unassuming presence means that it will be easily overlooked, which would be a great pity because the humorous and warm story is sensitively crafted by Ma and his co-writer Joy Goodwin. 

Biracial Callie (Lexi Perkel) is obsessed with trees and plants. She’s not pleased when her parents, David (Quincy Dunn-Baker) and Angela (Christine Ko) uproot the family to relocate for his job. Routinely cantankerous towards her parents, Callie shows little interest in her new neighbor Agnes (Lena Josephine Marano), who is a few years younger. Intolerant of others who struggle to equal her intelligence or share her interest in botany, Callie believes no one understands her.

Starting a new school brings an unexpected surprise when substitute teacher Ms. G (Judy Greer) arrives to teach a botany unit in science for another class. Undeterred, Callie sneaks into Ms. G’s classes, where she shows a natural acumen for the subject. Inspired by Ms. G’s lectures and online talks, Callie decides to conduct her own experiment to find out if chrysanthemums raised in darkness can keep track of time. Recruiting the affable Agnes to assist, Callie’s precocious nature leads the pair into more than a little adolescent strife. 

Reviewing Mabel immediately after Rachel Lambert’s romantic comedy-drama Sometimes I Think About Dying (2023) is a welcome coincidence. The adolescent Callie in Mabel and the adult Fran (Daisy Ridley) in Sometimes I Think About Dying are two disparate characters living or experiencing parallel lives. Each experiences an unexpected encounter that offers the opportunity to draw them out of their introverted shells.

Indeed, Callie and Fran are prisms for the theme of “disassociation”. However, the future for Callie and Fran in their parallel stories is decidedly different. While Callie has an opportunity to liberate herself, Fran has potentially become trapped in her isolation.

Mabel begins with Callie positioned as a minor character in nature, a partially seen figure behind a plant that dominates the foreground. She carefully transfers the plant to a terracotta pot, then climbs and lies in a tree carrying Mabel (the plant), staring up at the branches that hide the sunlit sky. Ma and cinematographer Mark Jeevaratnam deliberately frame Callie abstractedly, so she’s never fully in the frame in this sequence. Ma’s intent is to emphasize Callie’s bond with nature, so the family’s relocation feels to the audience as if Callie is uprooted from her natural habitat. Ma’s approach is to put his audience inside of Callie’s emotional space from the beginning. 

Typically, the relationship between Ms. G and Callie will be the dominant narrative arc in this coming-of-age story. In Mabel, a surprising fleeting encounter empowers Callie’s relationship with two people she is surly and distant towards – her mother and Agnes. Ma looks beyond this singular relationship with Ms. G to stress the competing interests of the intellectual and the emotional. Ms. G intellectually stimulates Callie and still makes an impression on the young and impressionable girl, but the teacher is emotionally cold and distant. This creates space for Angela and Agnes to nurture Callie’s emotional intelligence and empathy.  

“This isn’t Matilda and Miss Honey, where you have this almost dreamed-up relationship, a certain wish fulfillment of a child and parent relationship,” says Nicholas Ma in a virtual interview ahead of Mabel‘s premiere at the San Francisco International Film Festival. “It’s much more real, and as a result, speaks very deeply about the relationship a child imagines with an adult but isn’t necessarily reciprocated. It reminds us that the one relationship that’s reciprocated is the relationship that Callie ultimately can find her way back to. But that’s something about learning when you’re young, how it works, and how to begin understanding empathy. What does it mean to see things through someone else’s eyes other than your own, whether a plant or a person?”

Callie’s relationship with her mother is a beautiful and sensitive one. It’s thwarted with difficulties and hurtful words that cut her mother deep, but there’s an unrelenting love. Angela is, for the most part, the virtue of patience and understanding. It hurts to be told by Callie that no one understands her, but Angela understands her own limitations. She can’t give her daughter everything she needs, but with patience and perseverance, she finds common ground with Callie, which helps her find her way back to that relationship with Agnes. Mabel’s story is about finding and building relationships, understanding these interpersonal connections, and what we can and can’t offer one another. 

Mabel appears to be predominantly about children and their experiences, but it’s as much about the challenges of parenthood. David is heavy-handed at finding potential interests for Callie to help her become more sociable. Instead, Angela tries to set boundaries; she listens, observes, and supports Callie the best she knows how. Angela is willing to be vulnerable and embrace the uncertainty of her maternal role. When Callie needs her, she’s there to offer advice but does not try to protect Callie from uncertainty and emphasizes that the rest is up to her. 

“When we make the world too neat and tidy, we think we’re protecting people against bad stuff, but we’re protecting people from uncertainty, and that’s a terrible thing to protect people from,” says Ma. “Uncertainty is one of the most beautiful things in life. To live with that uncertainty is our task as human beings. It’s what all the great art I admire asks us to do, and I at least wanted to acknowledge that in some way.”

In Mabel, we sense a tension between David and Angela that’s never explored, nor do we find out what happened to Agnes’ mother or the defining experiences that compelled Ms. G to become socially distant. This puts the audience in the space of a child, excluded from adult conversations, but this isn’t its only purpose. From a mature perspective, there’s an awareness that we don’t always know what’s going on in someone else’s life or inside their mind. Ma’s approach is to put his audience inside a child’s point-of-view but also recognize that stories and their characters, like life, shouldn’t be neat and tidy. In keeping with this, Agnes’ fleeting relationship with Ms. G makes sense, but it’s also a comment about the distortion of memory.

“I think we remember the films we see as children as being simpler than they are. We remember Mary Poppins and think of her as this warm, loving nanny. She was not. Not in the films, not in the books. It doesn’t end with her kissing the kid’s goodbye. It ends with her disappearing,” says Ma. “Even in My Life as a Dog [Lasse Hallström, 1985], there are all these unanswered questions, and that’s important to acknowledge about the world a child experiences. You don’t get to know the answer to these questions. We’re left with these questions that haunt children, but it’s these questions that help them develop the skills to understand themselves better.”

Mabel subverts expectations and asks for the audience to be patient as it constructs its thematic conversation, building to an emotional epiphany that Callie is unlikely to fully understand and appreciate at the moment. This experience is only an episode in Callie’s larger coming-of-age story. 

Ma and Goodwin look to trees and plants as metaphors for human nature and our interpersonal relationships – our strengths and weaknesses; how humans and the botanical world are similar but different. In as much as Angela can help her daughter emotionally and empathically mature, Mabel reminds us that we must also grow our own persona from within. Ma and Goodwin have crafted a film that dares to be messier but is handled confidently, bringing this chapter in Callie’s story to a thoughtful and emotional conclusion. Mabel is the type of film that gently seduces us intellectually and emotionally, continuing to thoughtfully grow inside our minds as we continue on our own life journey. 

Mabel premiered in the Narratives: USA section at the SFFILM Festival 2024 and was one of the films spotlighted by the Sloan Science in Cinema Initiative.