It would be nice to think that navigating your way through the twists and turns of life, with all its contrary elements, would get easier as you get older.
But as mother and son, widow Joan (Kathryn Erbe) and Danny (Patrick Reilly), discover in Mike Roma’s feature debut, Dating My Mother, that idea is so much wishful thinking, a product of believing that age begets wisdom and insight, banishing the quicksand-like inertia of youth where hopes and dreams are many but a sense of how to successfully execute them proves all too frustratingly elusive.
Granted Joan, still grieving the loss her husband some years earlier and taking the first tentative steps back into serious dating, is handling things better than her son who, recently graduated from college, is trying unsuccessfully to get a job as a writer on a TV show, try his hand at filmmaking and hopefully land the man of his dreams.
But for all her outward success – nice house, career as a hairstylist and the nascent interest of “nice” (the word is bandied around a lot, both pejoratively and positively) man Chester (James Le Gros) – actual happiness and a sense of completion elude her, making her and her often acerbic son two somewhat adrift peas in an existential pod.
Still, for all their sameness in certain respects, it’s Danny, perpetually unhappy with life and not afraid to say so, who is flailing the most, his refusal to actively the situation he finds himself in, meeting with understanding and annoyance at the hands of Joan, depending on how well she is travelling along.
Dating My Mother obviously is aiming to explore the closeness and chasms in mother-son relationships, and Joan and Danny’s one in particular, and while it somewhat succeeds in its endeavour, it is fails badly to prosecute on its premise, a mainstay of gay cinema where gay guys are often joined at the hip with their mums.
The problem lies mainly with Mike Roma’s inert script and fairly pedestrian directing.
While there are some cute elements to the film – having the various dysfunctional elements and personalities of online dating play out in real life for Danny to react to is a nice touch – and Reilly and Erbe prosecute their roles well, Dating My Mother never really gains any momentum nor emotional accessability.
A great deal of the film’s failings in the latter respect stem from Danny’s almost total unlikeability as a protagonisy.
Yes, we get that he’s adrift, lost and uncertain, and that can play havoc with anyone’s emotional groundedness and stability, but it manifests itself more often than not as acidic, condescending, too-cool-for-school dismissiveness, an unyielding, unrelenting tide of negativity that achieves its aim of establishing as a lost soul before massively overshooting and turning him into the sort of person you would countries to avoid.
As the film progresses, there are some moments that successfully peer below his abrasive persona – when he meets the lovely Richard (Paul Iacono), a number of sweet heartfelt chats with his mum and vulnerability when he is rejected by vapid would-be suitor after vapid would-be suitor – but these are no enough to elevate his character to the point where we care enough about what happens to him.
Partner this with a script that never really raises the stakes to anything approaching meaningful and an ending that is happily trite and a little bit too late in reaching an epiphany for both of its main characters, and you’re left with a strangely lifeless story that ticks all the boxes in paper but never really does much else with them.
So too Kathy Najimy who as Joan’s sassy best friend Lisa, who is both the wild reckless soul of the trio and its sage insightful voice, is criminally wasted, never really given the chance to let loose and inject some much-needed verve into the flat narrative.
It’s easy to see where Mike Roma wanted to take the film, all too easy in fact with the storyline a little too beholding to many gay and indie movie tropes, and if it had gone there then Dating My Mother might have been an altogether different undertaking all together.
Acknowledging how difficult life is to get right at all, or at least for a sufficiently pleasing amount of time, isn’t enough although at least in that sense, audiences do have some point of connectivity with these characters.
There needs to be some sense that things aren’t just pottering along to a predictable end, but Dating My Mother never moves beyond this, less a slice-of-life dramedy than an insipid stringing in scenes that often in and of themselves have some impact and meaning but which collectively never end up as some of meaningful collective whole.
It’s a pity really because there are some fine performances begging for meatier realisation, hampered by a script that knows what it wants to say but doesn’t really over-exert itself saying them.
It’s by no means a disaster of a film, the kind of cinematic experience that you rue over and over again with the cold hard certainty you will never get that time back, but it’s never really engaging, leaving you curiously unmoved by the end of what should have been some fairly serious, and are again on paper, life moments.
Joan and Danny are far too close for comfort in many respects, and Danny is just plain unlikeable for much of the running time, and coupled with undeveloped secondary characters such as Danny’s straight crush Khris (Michael Rosen) and his clubbing friend with the voice only dogs can hear Tanya (Sideara St. Claire), and a sense that there’s much to say but no real sense of how to say it, and you have a film that could have been so much more, but which never really realises its potential, much like much of Danny’s post-college life.