I sometimes think that if a good movie gets made these days, it must be an accident. I mean, it must be a miracle. Of course, money is the biggest issue. Even the most low budget offering still costs thousands if not millions of dollars, and there are no guarantees that backers will ever see a return on their investments. Also, distribution–getting the finished film into theatres–is a racket unto itself. Of course, social media have made marketing more accessible than ever as evidenced by the whole Sharknado phenomenon. True independent filmmakers often take enormous risks to get their visions onscreen, and if/when that happens, well, yes, it’s a miracle. Miracles are good.Of course, big Hollywood studios have the resources to make all of the above possible, but the big Hollywood studios are no longer necessarily in the business of making movies–though every now and then one slips through the cracks. Look no farther than this past summer. One report after another explains that this past summer was probably the worst, at least domestically, in eight years, seventeen if you factor for inflation…but why do we need to factor for inflation? See, the studios are most interested in turning a buck, and movies are no longer just movies. They’re ground zero for a host of ancillary markets, mainly theme park attractions and video games, and that’s why so many of this past summer’s movies seemed more like video games. Of course, the U.S. is no longer Hollywood’s primary market, and many of these big budget action blockbusters actually perform better overseas than they do here, but this is not really news though it is the new business model.
On the other hand, I don’t want to pooh-pooh the studios too much. They might be corrupt, but that’s all they are, and every now and then a movie that’s fresh, inventive, and scaled to the human experience emerges, and if it hits with audiences, well, that’s a beautiful thing. We saw a handful of those last year. Gravity, from Warner Bros., comes to mind as does 12 Years a Slave, an indie released through 20th Century Fox.
At any rate, I recently found myself treated to a remarkable–dare I say miraculous–movie, a 30 minute short from actor-turned-first time writer-director Franz Maria Quitt. Entitled Mother, Quitt’s film tells two almost interlocking stories about children–both young and old–and what has to be, for most of us, the most complicated relationship of our lives–the one we share with our mothers: women who almost always know (or think they know) what’s best for us, including learning when to let go. In one scenario, a DJ living on the fringe, takes a road trip with the son he barely knows, resulting in a little truth-telling about mothers and who abandoned whom. The other story concerns a female nurse, the DJ’s neighbor, and her own mom, a once glamorous model now all but bed-ridden after a devastating loss. As Quitt is a former actor, it’s hardly a surprise that he coaxes such persuasive performances from his small cast, most of whom are unknown to mainstream filmgoers; however, there is at least one familiar face in the cast, and that is the remarkable Forney-based actress Darlene Cates.
Cates first came to prominence as the indomitable Bonnie “Mama” Grape in director Lasse Hallstrom’s Texas-made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a whopping 21 years ago. Released without a whole lot of fanfare—outside of Texas, that is–back in the day, Hallstrom’s film didn’t exactly set box office records, but it was well reviewed and helped young Leonardo DiCaprio score an Oscar nod in his breakthrough role as the Grape family’s developmentally challenged sibling, Arnie. In a stellar cast that included Johnny Depp, long before his run as a box-office titan, (former) Oscar winner Mary Steenburgen, one-time Oscar nominee Juliet Lewis, as well as the likes of Crispin Glover and (future Oscar nominee) John C. Reilly , one Darlene Cates, an untested actress from Forney TX, caught critics and moviegoers’ attention with a performance packed with raw emotion, holding nothing back either in the scenes requiring her to assert her incredible will against the town’s authorities, or the tender moments with her family in all its bewildering dysfunction. Such was the magnitude of Cates’ s performance that Paramount Pictures (the releasing studio) actually campaigned for her as a Best Supporting Actress possibility though, alas, the nomination never materialized.
Since then, Cates has worked selectively as her health permits though she receives plenty of offers. I personally found her 1994 performance as a woman accused of murdering her husband in David Kelly’s idiosyncratic, Emmy winning Picket Fences even more powerful than her Grape turn. Her other credits include Touched by an Angel and the cultish Wolf Girl, also known as Blood Moon. A nifty trick that one, what with location footage in Romania and selected interiors–including those featuring Cates–shot at Las Colinas in Irving. What I like most about Cates as a performer is her ability to do more with less. Her acting isn’t fussy or mannered, but it’s real, and it’s real because she hones in on the emotional truth of a scene and nails it in ways both little and big. Beautiful. Again, she’s very good at registering a lot even when she’s perfectly still.
The role in Mother was written with Cates in mind, but director Quitt had his work cut out to make it happen, tracking Darlene down through a network of sources only after auditioning a handful of actresses in his home base of New York. His experience mirrors that of Lasse Hallstrom who reportedly had a small handful of high profile actresses practically throwing themselves at him when he was casting Gilbert Grape. Hallstrom didn’t find what he was looking for until Cates’ screen test, a serendipitous turn of events that began when TV talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael interviewed Cates (then unknown) about her struggle with weight.
A few years ago, Cates’s health took a dramatic turn, but as seen in Mother, she has rebounded nicely as she fearlessly inhabits the dark interiors of a woman who can barely look her own daughter in the eye. That daughter, by the way, is played by Kaylyn Scardefield in a beautiful performance of surprising economy. Another standout is young Alexander Rolinski, startlingly good as the young boy whose frustration about his seemingly irresponsible dad turns to something more akin to understanding and forgiveness during their time together. The dad is effectively played by Ryan Jonze whose credits include the likes of 30 Rock, Ugly Betty, Kings, and Sordid Things. Director Quitt makes a cameo, and DeAnna Dugan briefly appears in a key supporting role.
Props to Quitt for such a splendid debut effort, one with not only well acted moments of emotional honesty, but scene after scene of beautifully composed shots, showing a lot of maturity and resourcefulness given the constraints of indie filmmaking. Texturally, this film reminds me somewhat of Zach Braf’s splendid directorial debut, Garden State (2004) Of course, Quitt is aided in all of this by co-story developer Natalie Johnson, cinematographer Saro Varjabedian (w/assistance from Lee Peterkin), and editor Filip K. Kasperaszek. This is another instance of a work seamlessly combining footage shot in the New York/New Jersey area along with scenes filmed in Addison and Forney. Amazing. Even more amazing, apparently, is the road trip the crew took in a 15 passenger van from New York to Texas to work with Cates. Now, that’s true indie filmmaking.
Currently, a DVD, including a behind-the-scenes documentary, is in the works and will hopefully be available for distribution soon. In the meantime, Quitt has begun the arduous task of submitting his property for consideration in such film festivals as Sundance and South by Southwest. I can’t imagine that he won’t succeed because his movie, at only 30 minutes, seems incredibly realized, that is, finished, polished; however, the business of film festivals is, well, a business, and it’s all so very competitive, but the rewards can be oh-so-sweet for those who believe in miracles.
*Funny story about how I arrived at this title. As I was writing this piece, I was also watching an episode of Shark Tank featuring a delightful (and quite successful) 12 year old entrepreneur who boasted to the judges that he was the NBT, the next big thing. I thought it was funny and liked the idea of contrasting “big” and “short,” as in short film, certainly a better option than making a pun of the word ‘mother’ as in “Thank You Franz, May I Have a Mother,” right?
Soliel Film presents Franz Maria Quitt’s Mother (2014): http://www.mothershortfilm.com/
Hollywood Reporter: “Box Office Crash: What Caused Hollywood’s Miserable Summer” by Pamela McClintock (Sept. 1, 2014) – http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/box-office-crash-what-caused-728367
CNN Money: “Summer bummer: Hollywood suffer big slump” by Jesse Solomon (August 1 2014) – http://money.cnn.com/2014/08/01/investing/summer-box-office-slump/
 Here we go: Steenburgen won Best Supporting Actress for 1980’s Melvin and Howard; Juliette Lewis was a supporting nominee for 1991’s Cape Fear; John C. Reilly had a breakthrough year in 2002, landing roles in three Best Picture nominees–Gangs of New York, The Hours, and Chicago, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor.