It is, no doubt, tough work being a full-time mom, especially when you get little help or understanding from your husband and long for a role for yourself other than “mother.” To that end, focusing on the different minor travails suffered on a daily basis by Towheads’s lead character, Penelope (writer-director Shannon Plumb), as well as her attempts to try on various identities, would seem to be an apt choice for a filmmaker who appears to be probing her own autobiographical impulses. But that this should result in a film so tone deaf, unfunny, and generally wrongheaded can only be a unique product of the director’s peculiarly and utterly self-enclosed sensibility.
A sort of poor woman’s Miranda July, Plumb plays Penelope as a harried, stoop-shouldered, bottle blonde, who speaks in a tiny, squeaky voice and seems so woefully klutzy that it’s a wonder she can even walk down the street let alone take care of her two, yes, towheaded kids (her real-life sons Cody and Walker Cianfrance). She’s also given to twee adventures, such as dressing up as a man and auditioning for the role of Santa Claus (in what context isn’t exactly clear) against, for some reason, exclusively black men. Also, she appears to be a video artist of some type, though she has little chance to pursue that field because the official artist in the family is her husband, Matt (played by real-life hubby and Blue Valentine director Derek Cianfrance), who lectures her coldly on their different marital responsibilities when she asks him for help around the house. (As a lame visual metaphor for his character’s emotional absence, Plumb always obscures Cianfrance’s head when he’s on screen.)
Mostly, though, the film seems to be an excuse for Plumb to perform her shtick, which has her doing everything from acting out different animals in a game of charades with a babysitter to locking herself in her studio and performing different “video art” scenarios in which she pretends to be a baseball player hitting a home run or other professionals succeeding in their chosen roles. Clearly, mileage here will vary, but it’s hard to feel much sympathy for Penelope’s situation when her character is little more than a whiny child herself, even before her final mental breakdown.
There’s but one sequence in the entire movie that offers even the slightest bit of filmmaking verve, and even this speaks to the project’s essential myopia. The film opens with a series of tracking shots that show Penelope pushing a stroller down a Brooklyn street, navigating the typical city obstacles. Plumb conjures up a sense of recognition for anyone who’s ever walked head-on into a five-wide group of people taking up the entire sidewalk, while her camerawork creates a low-key headlong rush. But even here, there’s the sense that the street belongs by rights to Penelope, that anyone else who would get in the way of this harried mother is an interloper on her block. And when, throughout the rest of the film, Plumb doesn’t come close to matching the minor pleasures of the opening sequence, her behavior comes off as all that more self-indulgent and puling.