Mama Drama

Pub date June 8, 2010
SectionFilm Features

FILM The unusually high proportion of non-native San Franciscans not only underlines our living in a “destination” city, but also suggests that many of us were eager to leave something behind. Certainly it’s no accident The Full Picture’s fraternal protagonists both chose to live here. Yes, it’s a lovely place. It also happens to be 3,000 insulating miles from where they were raised, and where the dragon still dwells.

Unfortunately, she can fly: sensible heels clacking militaristically across airport tarmac first clue us to the personality of monster-mother Gretchen Foster (Bettina Devin), who sweetly announces she’s off to visit “my boys” in SF, then breathes fire when that charm fails to secure a first class upgrade. Clearly it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Jon Bowden’s first feature is based on his original play, and this screen incarnation doesn’t entirely leave the whiff of stagecraft behind. It’s smart, fluid, funny, and biting, as well as a nice addition to the roster of movies that really do convey something about living here.

Braced in fighting stance for mom’s arrival is Hal (Joshua Hutchinson). He’s got a wife named Beth (Heather Mathieson), a toddler, a compulsive wandering eye, and one very jaundiced view of Gretchen’s alleged victimized past and ditto good intentions.

On the other hand, Mark (Daron Jennings) always backed up ma’s side of the story. He sports the terrified geniality of someone who’s long kept the peace by living a lie that might explode at any moment. Live-in girlfriend Erika (Lizzie Ross) is everything mom is not: supportive, truthful, transparent. But the feelings he’s repressed leak out in martial commitment skittishness, not to mention an inability to prepare anxiety attack-prone Erika for the weekend boot camp of subtle evisceration she’s about to receive from her brand-new worst frenemy.

That weekend works through a minigolf obstacle course of logistical meal disasters, temporary sightseeing balm, withering “compliments,” ugly spousal conflict, and climactic reveals about dad’s long-ago departure. Through it all, Gretchen’s frosted Nancy Reagan coif remains as rigid as her revisionist family history. But the emotions she stirs up — not without backlash — grow very messy indeed.

The Full Picture is a small picture, but it would be a shame to let its genuine satisfactions pass you by. As writer, director, and producer, Bowden turns economy into crafty virtues, and his actors are inspired. Nothing here is wildly original, yet it feels fresh — especially the way so much nervous comedy leads to screaming catharsis, only to land on a slightly zen grace note. 

The Full Picture opens Fri/11 at the Roxie.