Partly based on her own teenage experiences, Alison Murray’s feature debut Mouth to Mouth is an anti-cult cautionary tale directed at impressionable kids in jeopardy of joining shirtless hunks on European excursions marked by chanting, eating out of dumpsters, and psychological warfare. Sherry (Ellen Page) ditches incompetent mother Rose (Natasha Wightman) to join up with SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge), a crew of former whores and methadone-using ex-junkies who, led by the charismatic Harry (Eric Thal), claim to be interested in changing the world (“We want to give homeless people a course in intellectual self-defense!”) but, in truth, simply wish to revel in their own apathy and narcissism.
A portrait of the euphoria and grave consequences of an irresponsible, willfully indoctrinated life, Murray’s film moves along with dirt-under-fingernails authenticity but with a dearth of restraint, its initial scenes of Harry and right-hand stooge Tiger (August Diehl) preaching empowerment twaddle to suggestible outcasts an immediate tip-off that horrible tragedy lies in wait for those foolish enough to drink the Kool-Aid. Without any overriding narrative urgency, tension is sharply confined to individual scenes, including an unexpected death that destroys SPARK’s pretenses of joviality, as well as a head-shaving ceremony that gets at the supposedly nonconformist group’s hypocritical demand for conformity.
Photographed in glowingly gritty Super 16, Mouth to Mouth benefits from Page’s performance as Sherry, whose fierce self-destructiveness underlies a craving for maternal responsibility and acceptance, as well as an intimate working knowledge of cult dynamics and the build-you-up, tear-you-down tactics employed by their overlords. Yet inspired by her dance background (and, it seems, Beau Travail), Murray periodically has characters break into balletic routines that are less natural outgrowths of her story than intrusive indulgences awkwardly shoehorned in for expressive effect, thereby undermining the film’s docudrama realism by calling attention to its artificial seams. And as it spirals toward its moralizing climax and upbeat finale, the film segues from being a rousing tutorial on group-think paranoia and pressures into a depiction of the buzzkill that comes from having Mom partake in one’s own anti-establishment rebellion.