Towheads | Review
O is for the Other Things: Plumb’s Debut an Idiosyncratic Exercise in Domestic Ennui
Video and performance artist Shannon Plumb makes her directorial debut with Towheads, which showcases her considerable talent for physical comedy and well executed gags, here nestled within the rather morbid framework of possible mental instability caused by the monotony of domestic life. Her film is a family affair, starring her two young sons and her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, which lends the proceedings a certain dramatic depth that the overtly light and comedic tone might otherwise sweep away.
Penelope (Shannon Plumb) is a rather distracted and harried mother of two young sun bleached blond boys, 4 year old Cody and 7 year old Walker (Cody and Walker Cianfrance). She’s sharing a seemingly functional marriage with her theater director husband, Matt (Derek Cianfrance), but not only is he largely absent while pursuing the dreams of his own profession, we actually never even get to see his face as he’s continually blocked out by camera angles or physical objects. Penny, who seems to love and is affectionate towards her children, is obviously floundering, yearning for something more. She finally hires a babysitter, settling on a young woman who gamely passes an interview process involving animal charades, and goes off to engage in a series of meandering activities that play out like the fantasies of one simply wishing to fritter life’s moments away in superficial pleasantries.
After donning Chaplin garb, she tramps around Brooklyn and interviews to be a summertime Santa, infiltrating a group that seemingly hires only black men. After several other instances of bizarre and entertaining adventures, including pole dancing for women that are feeling blue, Penny retreats more and more into her own fantasy world and eventually locks herself away in the apartment, leaving Matt to care for the boys while she busts out her camcorder and creates a series of video art, displaying a random series of motifs.
With her Jennifer Jason Leigh mumble and a series of gags that should put you in mind of something along the lines of Miranda July or Amy Sedaris’ schtick, Plumb’s Towheads plays like a series of strung together events that somehow paint a portrait of a stifled soul yearning for something more beyond the simple confines of the daily grind. We first see Plumb’s Penelope awkwardly bent over, pushing a stroller full of items on the way to fetch her boys from school. She’s hunched awkwardly, as if gravity itself were working against her, weighing her down. She observes construction workers checking out a strutting lady in high heels ahead of her, and they ignore Penny completely. A young and cheeky blonde neighbor constantly pops up to remind us of her charmed life as an aspiring actress, and worst of all, the faceless Matt continually pops up to share news of his exciting day and offer little to no consolation for Penny.
While the dramatic nature of Towheads is questionable, Plumb proves herself to be an arresting comedian, a talent worthy of existing outside the success of Cianfrance’s quickly mounting career as one of the most noteworthy American directors. She seems to channel all her obvious anxiety and despair into her physical antics, giving us a spot on Chaplin impression while Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” blares out the soundtrack, and distracts us from the potential despair of daily life, spinning the day into whimsical fantasy. Towheads flirts with being an experimental endeavor, and ends on a touching note that may very well be how Plumb conceived the idea for the feature in the first place. Overall, the film is an enjoyable debut from a director that seems to have a lot of tricks up her sleeve.