‘Mama’s Boy’ review: Dustin Lance Black doc barely balances the line between being uplifting and a vanity project on stilts | NewFest

In 2009, at age 34, Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for his script for the biopic Harvey Milk. Milk. In his acceptance speech, he promised young gays and lesbians that “very soon…you will have equal rights, federally, throughout this great nation.” The next day, his mother asked him how he intended to keep that promise. For Anne (née Roseanna), a promise was a sacred thing, and although she left the Mormon Church years ago, she still held to some of its principles. This question fueled Black’s journey over the next few years as he became an activist working to make marriage equality the law of the land. On this journey, he found inspiration and success in his mother’s philosophy of sitting down with people, listening and sharing with an open mind. Mom’s son, Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary based on Black’s memoir of the same name, is a tribute to Anne. In practice, however, the two parts of the film — it’s actually both a Dustin Lance Black biopic and his tribute to his mother — end up working somewhat at cross purposes.

Roseanne Bisch was a phenomenal woman, there is no doubt. Immobile from chest to toe after a childhood battle with polio, she has spent her life defying the odds. Everyone said she should just use a wheelchair, but she insisted on struggling with crutches, which she has used all her life. No one thought she would ever find a man to marry her, but she did three times. Doctors said she could never have children, but she gave birth to three healthy boys by caesarean section. Although she became a Mormon for her first husband, she still kissed her gay son (after an initial pseudo-rejection). Her life – and by extension, that of her sons – was one of many false starts and resets that took her from the impoverished town of Lake Providence, LA to Texas, California, and ultimately to Washington, DC. It’s a story of overcoming obstacles that is incredibly inspiring on its own, and should be even more so when paired with Black’s story of growing up gay in the Mormon church with a father who abandoned the family. , an abusive stepfather and an extended family that was usually extremely conservative to become a happily married gay man who is also an award-winning screenwriter.

The problem is that, in the film, everything is told in the simplest way possible, and mainly from the mouth of Black himself. This gives Mom’s son the perhaps inevitable feel of a vanity project: a Hollywood insider making a documentary about himself and his mother simply because he can afford it. By the end, it becomes more than that, but for the first two-thirds of the film, it can get a bit tiresome listening to Black’s serious, overly composed voice recounting his family history. The fact that Black wrote the book that the film explicitly adapts may lead to his interview parts seeming overly written, almost scripted, as opposed to how most documentary interview subjects present themselves. Occasionally, however, raw emotion shines through during interviews with Black and his younger brother Todd. Reliving their childhood is clearly an emotional experience for them, and the tears feel raw and real where the rest of the film may feel overly cautious and scripted. It’s these moments that make the film an engaging watch, even though it’s actually a paint-by-numbers biographical documentary.

Fortunately, the last half hour of the film, when Black turns his eyes more towards activism, has the impact the film needs to be an uplifting and worthwhile film. The story of how Black managed to sit down with Mormon church leaders and inspired other Mormons to declare their support and love for their gay children is inspiring and even galvanizing. If Black’s insistence on the importance of listening to others, even if they think you’re going to hell, is somewhat difficult to reconcile with a film in which he primarily speaks to the audience, at least he has enough conviction that the message always gets through. And the scenes with Black and the rest of his mother’s family hugging happily and looking back at their love for each other are truly heartwarming, especially in these dark times. Perhaps Black and Bouzereau’s hope is that the film will be seen primarily by the people who need this message the most, and that it will be shown to them by their LGBTQ+ family members who haven’t spoken to them since. years because of their lack of support. . That’s a pretty big ask, and Black certainly seems to know it. But maybe Mom’s son – which does what good art should do and finds universality in its specificity – is simple, gentle and in-between enough for it to actually happen. It may not be a great movie, but if it actually manages to turn things around, does it matter?

Category B-

This review is from 2022 NewFest. It begins streaming on HBO Max on October 18.