Motivational Growth

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 02/23/13 15:51:23

"The movie with the talking mold is, in fact, a bit of a mess."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2012 BOSTON SCI-FI FILM FEST: "Motivational Growth" ran twice at the festival, with overlapping crowds but different results: Once as a spotlight presentation with the director doing Q&A that was reasonably well received, and once as the 4am leg of a noon-to-noon marathon that produced a lot of angry cursing at the screen. To a certain extent, the opposite reactions are reflective of the people who yelled the loudest, but they both reflect the quality of the work.

Things are pretty off-putting right away; Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) hasn't left his apartment in a year and a half, and both he and the unit look roughly as bad as one might expect. When his television breaks down, he decides to end it all, but instead slips, bashes his head on the bathtub, and when he comes to, the mold that has built up in a corner of the bathroom is giving him advice (with the voice of Jeffrey Combs).

Director Don Thacker ladles the quirk on pretty thick, even beyond a talking lump of fungus having a co-starring role. Ian addresses the camera directly, for instance, and the other characters in the movie are one pretty well-exaggerated note each. The movie is set in 1991 (per the post-screening Q&A), but not so obviously that the odd bits that grow from that - the soundtrack composed on a Commodore 64's SID chip, the tacky-looking programming that runs when Ian's console TV is working, and the sequence animated like a video game from that time - feel like part of the setting rather than gags around it. Each of these is okay on their own, but they're a lot taken together.

The episodic structure of the movie doesn't exactly help, either; Motivational Growth is divided into ten roughly ten-minute-long chapters which probably could be broken out and presented separately as a web series. It might work better in that format; there would be less obvious repetitive bits or describing things seen happening not long long before. The seeming discontinuities and ambiguities would not seem to matter so much - and there are plenty of those, right up until an end that jumps between three divergent options.

And yet, beneath the grime and ugliness and rather excessive vomit gags, there's enough that's genuine to make things worth sifting through. Adrian DiGiovanni, for instance, is pretty good, especially when Ian is a disaster as the movie starts, depression oozing from his unkempt face. The fear of the outside is palpable even when he's cleaned up; it's an honest, believable take on being in a deep hole. Danielle Doetsch has the oddest of the oddball rolls as Leah, the girl-next-door who is so friendly that odds are she's a fantasy, but who is able to come off as possibly just eccentric. Pete Giovangnoli is broad but effective comic relief as the angry landlord.

Plus, there's The Mold. What you see on screen is a decent-looking puppet that is occasionally augmented for some truly disgusting gross-out gags, but it (and the whole movie, really) would be an utter disaster without Jeffrey Combs providing its voice. Combs is generally able to take Thacker's odd-sounding lines and make them just as off-kilter cool as they should be, a combination of cool rebel and dorky father figure that is funnier than it has any right to be. Then he gets a speech at the climax where Combs can just really go to town, unleashing all the held-back menace and briefly making the movie into something that, for the moment, feels grand.

Lose Combs for someone who can't quite match his performance, and "Motivational Growth" becomes an almost unmitigated, unquestionable disaster. Heck, I can't mount much of an argument against those who say it already is - it has problems enough that Combs's pretty terrific work only gets it in the neighborhood of average, with my second viewing not doing it many favors - but there's just enough interesting amidst the mess to make it worth one shot.

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