There is something so haunting about “Mother, Couch” that the term surreal doesn’t quite cover it. Could it be a recent career-best-of-many performance by Ellen Burstyn, or the realization that why, yes, Lara Flynn Boyle has an uncanny resemblance to the iconic actress and is perfectly cast as her daughter?
Or is it just how frazzled Ewan McGregor becomes as he starts contemplating whether or not he is a bad parent to his young children while his onscreen wife, played by Lake Bell, is drowning in her own swirl of domestic stress? In short, “Mother, Couch” is a triumph that marks, bafflingly, writer-director Niclas Larsson’s feature debut. (The Swedish filmmaker previously helmed the short film series “Magic Diner,” starring Alicia Vikander.)
To start with the title, “Mother, Couch” does very well need the comma: This is a presentation of a nameless Mother (Burstyn), one whose title is solely in reference to the fact that she has spawned a trio of children — David (McGregor), Gruffudd (Rhys Ifans), and Linda (Boyle) — meets an expensive green couch and refuses to get up from it. To be clear, we don’t actually see Mother finding the couch; instead, the film opens with David arriving in a hurry to pick his mom up from the closing sale at Oakwoods furniture store, where she has found respite atop the aforementioned sofa.
The Oakwoods store manager Bella (Taylor Russell) doesn’t seem to mind, and Mother is invited to even stay overnight if needed, so long as store-owning father Marco and his identical twin Marcus (both played by F. Murray Abraham) don’t find out.
David doesn’t want to purchase the couch, Mother won’t stand up, and Linda only wants to call 9-1-1. Gruffudd is too busy flirting with Bella to help at all to resolve the fact that Mother and couch have seemingly become one, sans comma. Of course, this isn’t a film just about a furniture store and nor is it a film about a couch, really.
Larsson’s script is so well-paced that the descent into David’s madness is tied to his growing frustration over why he can’t just solve the situation, no matter how much of a good son and a good brother he tries to be. A good father, though, is a title he grapples with after Mother literally stabs him in the back with a letter opener to prove his weaknesses as a parental figure.
“Mother, Couch” toys with the symmetry of a Wes Anderson film as the superb production design mirrors the decaying reminder that “everything must go,” including Mother and David’s sanity, it seems. As Bella becomes closer with David, her divine youth is filtered into a surrogate maternal role; a naked Bella flirtatiously asks David for a towel while leaving the shower, but then only dons a sexless, old-school fluffy bathrobe to cook him dinner and tuck him in later. She’s an angel, and Oakwoods is purgatory; David just has to decide whether to stay and keep trying, or to leave his Mother once and for all.
The layout of Oakwoods is designed with each room being fully livable, set up like a real house, as Bella says, while denying any parallels to IKEA. Oakwoods is fully comfortable and homey; David, Gruffudd, and Linda recreate their denied childhoods in the 1950s-style kitchen. Mother reminds them all that she had no desire to have kids to begin with; they were the lucky three that “clung” to her uterus between five separate abortions.
Burstyn’s performance after schlockier recent roles reminds audiences why she is a Hollywood legend. A monologue midway through the film is acting at its finest, with Burstyn spewing vitriol as McGregor expertly cowers, his own leading role as David steering the ship-couch (don’t worry, it’ll make sense later with an epic climax) to perfection. Russell can convey every emotion in just the tilt of her head, and as Bella, she shines in a striking new way following her “Bones and All” breakout role. And “Twin Peaks” alum Boyle is magnificently cast in a pitch-perfect comedic role as a chain-smoking older sister who just wants to “get the fuck out of here” no matter the new drama that Mother is conjuring up.
“Mother, Couch” and “Beau Is Afraid” are the ideal double feature in the 2023 film trend of narcissistic mothers: Could Larsson be the new Ari Aster? His vision for “Mother, Couch” is sewn into every frame of the film, and Larsson’s presence in Hollywood is certainly not one to discount.
“Mother, Couch” premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.