Utah Phillips once described the apathetic malaise of the contemporary North American person as a “cryonic torpor” – a phrase which readily comes to mind as one watches the opening act of writer-director Don Thacker’s surreal dark comedy, Motivational Growth.
Peering out from pinprick eyes ringed by heavy black circles, lounging on the couch in his boxers and undershirt, alone but for the legacy-model cabinet television he has affectionately named “Kent”, Ian (Adrian DiGiovanni) has spent the past 16 months sequestered amidst the clutter and grime in his (surprisingly spacious) apartment. Then the TV blows its last vacuum tube in a shower of sparks and a puff of smoke. This severance of Ian’s already tenuous link to reality, via sitcoms and cheesy commercials, is his rock-bottom moment, followed shortly thereafter by an attempt to gas himself with a bathtub cocktail of household cleaning products.
When Ian awakes from his apparently failed suicide, “The Mold” is waiting for him: The Mold (Jeffrey Combs) is a slick and vaguely sleazy fungal mound which refers to itself in the third person from the shadowy corner of Ian’s grime-encrusted bathroom. Ian – whom The Mold insists on calling “Jack” – has lost his way and its job, says The Mold, is to help him get back on track.
What follows is a psychotropic odyssey of 16-bit cutscenes, homicidal spore dispersal, and ill-fated geek romance, the combination of which plays out like Jacob’s Ladder reenacted by the cast of Clerks (in fact, at a certain point, one of the TV characters can be heard to exclaim, “I’m not supposed to be here!”) The film’s articulate-slacker characters and their witty dialogue provide a humourous counterpoint to the treacherous motives and questionable predicaments that destabilize the viewer’s assumptions and expectations at every turn. It is unclear whether or not The Mold is really as devious as it seems, or if its tactics are just a tough-love strategy to force Ian/Jack to conquer his fears. By contrast his bizarre TV-dream interludes are much more insidious – despite the familiar, nostalgic stereotypes of the ginsu-knife guy, the leg-warmers-and-leotard workout coach, the hip well-tailored buddy-cop action heroes, or the exotic sci-fi aliens, all of their actions seem intended to subdue and control Ian by somatic distraction. Similarly, while the romantic element that grows out of his peephole-stalking of neighbour Leah (Danielle Doestsch) is the impetus for Ian’s renewed interest in life, even their budding relationship is suspect.
Engaging and entertaining on many levels simultaneously, one can only sit back and marvel at the deft construction of Motivational Growth; because any attempt to dissect and catalogue its parts over less than several viewings will fail, given its recursiveness. Less a straightforward, linear maze than an Escher-like illusion of perspective or a Borgesian conundrum, its story is constructed as much by our cultural familiarity with video games, sitcoms, and pop culture as by its characters and plot, and the points where these elements intersect and overlap are both transformative and reductive, rendering the components both-and-neither (and aptly labelled in a chapter headings as, “contraflexure”.) Given the multiple transformations he experiences, even Ian/Jack’s dual naming is significant – is Ian no longer himself once The Mold refers to him as Jack? Like David Lynch’s bait-and-switch protagonist in Lost Highway, Ian/Jack experiences what appear to be two separate realities and it is unclear whether one is a projection of the other or if they exist on a singular continuum. Just as The Mold obscures the intersection of planes in its corner of the bathroom, so our experience of Ian/Jack’s reality becomes a hopeless blur of waking and dreaming.
Certain films one returns to again and again, trusting in their ability to transform and evoke certain feelings and perceptions – to take the viewer on a journey and escape from the particularities of one’s own life, to see things from a different perspective for a while. In this sense, film becomes a means of self-medication that has every bit of transcendental potency as any psychedelic drug and with a similar capacity to permanently alter one’s perception and understanding of “reality”. While it may appear harmless enough as a lighthearted dark comedy, Motivational Growth is smarter (and more potent) than it looks – so watch out for flashbacks, Jack.