Mouth to Mouth: Alison Murray’s Film, Starring Ellen Page

Mouth to Mouth has all the makings of an art house classic: a plot that puts a youthful spin on an Orwellian parable, an off-the-fringes writer-director (Alison Murray) whose short films have been screened alongside those of Michel Gondry and Paul Thomas Anderson, and rising star Ellen Page (Hard Candy, X-Men: The Last Stand).

Though exec producer Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter) describes the film as truly adventurous and original, it is anything but. What went wrong “Mouth to Mouth” is so steeped in hipster sensibility that it fails to offer a single relatable character. Director Murray is so convinced that viewers will be sold on the inventiveness of her concept that she doesn’t care whether the actual moments in the movie are uninspired. Its unfortunate when a movie bristling with so much promise turns out to be such a joyless experience.

Sherry (Page) is a teenage runaway whose perpetual scowl hardly masks her vulnerabilityshed be more at home in a Calvin Klein ad than on the streets. After meeting Harry, an affable blonde who’s the head of a cult called SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge), he takes her in. The purpose of SPARK is similar to that of many well-intentioned charity organizations, only SPARK doesnt encourage the homeless to give up drugs for jobs and Jesus. Instead, it encourages them to give up drugs for the chance to drive around in a cool van, making occasional detours to dig through dumpsters and to start bonfires, where they prove their rebelliousness by burning things.

Murray, who has directed over twenty music videos, uses the same aesthetics for Mouth to Mouth, seducing us with fancy camera angles and constant motion. The movie plays as a sort of Road Rules for the homeless, with its moments of sexual tension, juvenile histrionics, and pseudo-spirituality. Like Road Rules, Murray uses wall-to-wall music to enliven bland situations and to trick us into believing that the vacuous conversations are profound.

Many movies employ music to heighten and manipulate our emotions, bringing out sentiments in scenes too faint to register on their own. However, its shameful when a movie uses music to assume a significance that never exists in the first place. The cinematography, as beautiful as it is, feels wasted since it’s layered over such vulgar, sloppily executed scenes; the slow-motion shots are laughable.

The road trip sequences, while mindless, are at least slightly diverting. However, once conflicts arise, the narrative flounders in all directions, much like the protagonist who continues to make arbitrary decisions based on neither experience nor logic.

Even for insecure teenagers, rape should signal a wake-up call that the cult leaders are more concerned with asserting power than with spreading goodwill, yet Sherry makes no attempt to leave. When Harry shifts the cults theme from free love to free labor, turning the members into slaves, the only form of protest comes in hushed whispers between members as theyre working in the fields. This would make sense if everyone was stranded on a desert island, but as it is, the cult headquarters are only a short walk from the nearest highway.

Clearly, Murray intends to illustrate the seductive nature of cults, yet no scenes convincingly advance this argument. Instead, the scenes unfold from the perspective of an outsider, who sees the cult exactly as it is: a bunch of nutcases with shaved heads and meaningless ideals, divided up into corrupt leaders and blind followers.

Page, who was hailed by critics for her performance in Hard Candy, here shifts gears awkwardly between naivety and defiance. This is mainly a fault of the writing, which bases characters on generalizations of particular types rather than on living embodiments. It’s possible for types to be portrayed in nuanced waysdepictions of the troubled teen run the gamut from Conrad in Ordinary People to Enid in Ghost World to the titular hero of “Donnie Darko.” Those movies, however, allowed the characters to expand beyond the label’s narrow confines, but Mouth to Mouth assigns Sherry with the label and stops there, and the same could be said of Rose, the irresponsible mom.” It doesnt help that Page has to work with lines like Cant you see, hes a soul sucker!

Violence in this movie, whether in the form of pointless tragedy or graphic torture, exists only to lend it an edge. Lacking a convincing scenario that builds tension, and characters that are engaging enough for us to care about them when they die, the whole movie, not just the violence, simply leaves a bad taste in our mouths.

Written by Kate Findley