Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man is a low-budget dry comedy that burns slowly into a heartbreaking, personal open letter to the director's own parents: underground/experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs and wife Flo Jacobs. His parents play themselves in the film while the cherub-faced actor Matt Boren plays Mikey, a surrogate fill in for the actual Azazel. What Jacobs' accomplishes, without sneer or selfish grin, is a healthy communication with his parents through the process of making a fictional narrative feature. What's special, is that we get to witness this unique brand of artistic therapy without any of the icky familial crucifixions that were central to documentaries like 51 Birch Street or Tarnation that became so popular after the shameful Capturing the Friedmans.
Mikey is a middle-class husband and father living in California. Upon a business trip to his birthplace of New York City, Mikey becomes comfortably reacquainted with the house he grew up in and, at departure time, finds it emotionally and physically impossible to leave. Jacobs and Boren do an expert job of patiently revealing the metaphorical clumps of cement on Mikey's feet, eventually leading to a subtle and tasteful sequence where Mikey crawls on hands and knees through the home he grew up in.
And what a home it is. Upper East Coast eccentrics and artists, Mikey's parents live in a loft with organization and storage not unlike that of a warehouse. Theirs is not a filthy living, just one of convenience and quick access. Cardboard boxes, Tupperware drawers, stacked rafters, art supplies. Dinner conversation tends toward such off road topics as the death of modern art movements, but Jacobs portrays it in a casual, truthful way, taking pains to not paint his parents as intellectual stereotypes. Still, Mikey is an outsider. He doodles during art talk and shrugs when his father points out the jazz-rock fusion coming through the speakers. Mikey prefers two chord rock-pop chuggers and comic books.
These differences aren't points of friction or generational walls erected for the purpose of high drama, but simply examples of a common disconnect we've all felt with our parents whether it be over politics, religion, art, or sports. The love is unconditional, and because that is universally understood, Jacobs doesn't waste time convincing us of the bond between Mikey and his parents. In fact, Momma's Man never even explains the internal dilemma that is keeping Mikey away from his wife and daughter and job in California, and grounded in pajamas and four-day old stubble in his childhood bed next to high school memorabilia and sticker books.
Sometimes what we feel and what we need is something we can't even identify ourselves, and that's what makes Momma's Man's autobiographical elements transcend regional, class, and social differences. This is in stark artistic contrast to other art house autobio-pics like the awful The Squid and the Whale, which instead seemed keen on promoting class envy by way of Noah Baumbach's bragging on how "hip" his New York asshole parents were. If anything, Momma's Man is a movie that Ken and Flo Jacobs can be proud of, not just because their son made a great film, but because the sensitivity and insight within it is a partial reflection of their own guidance.