Mouth to Mouth has enough going for it that you want to like it. But, try as you might, writer-director-dance choreographer Alison Murray's youth cautionary tale will likely leave you frustrated, and exhausted by the effort. Murray's movie rides on a thin dramatic premise: Sherry (Ellen Page), a teenager alienated from her mother (there's something new) runs away and joins a radical youth cooperative (read: cult) made up of society's backwash, i.e. junkies, runaways, and former prostitutes.
The group's fist-in-the-air acronym is SPARK (Street People Armed with Radical Knowledge), and the creed they rally around is "intellectual self-defense" -- a catchphrase that should ring a bell with anyone familiar with the 1992 Noam Chomsky documentary Manufacturing Consent. Apart from weaning addicts off drugs, SPARK's shaven-headed principal members, none of whom apparently owns a shirt, operate with no bigger political purpose in mind. Largely, the group exists as a generic narrative device -- an aimless, visionless organization of Murray's concoction solely to run Sherry through her paces.
Trundling through Europe in a rattletrap van, they preach their power-to-the-people mumbo jumbo to the homeless and the disaffected, rummage for food in dumpsters, and, otherwise, party it up at raves like it's 1999. At first, Sherry's all about the SPARK experience. It gives her a sense of belonging, of purpose, and that itself brings to mind the irony of teenage rebellion: We reject one form of authority (parental) only to lap up the non-conformist Kool-Aid offered by another. Unless and until we take control of our destinies, we're bound to remain suckers. That, in a nutshell, is Murray's message.
The SPARK tribe eventually rolls up to a commune where they pick grapes, bottle wine, and generally find themselves subjected to Harry (Eric Thal), their bearish chieftain, and his Orwellian mind tricks and brutal punishments. That's also when Rose (Natasha Wightman), Sherry's flighty, thoroughly incompetent mother shows up. Rose responds to Harry's self-empowerment sloganeering and decides to join the group herself. Sherry, of course, is as mortified by Rose's presence as by Harry's psychological and sexual manipulations of the females in the group, whose broken-down self-esteems make them perfect prey.
Along with the recently released castration thriller Hard Candy, Mouth to Mouth declares Ellen Page as an actor to pay attention to. In both movies, she galvanizes her puckish innocence with a sexual energy that makes her more than watchable, and, in her most anguished scenes in Mouth to Mouth, she proves herself a fierce talent. Likewise, Eric Thal as Harry emanates magnetic charisma, finding that perfect pitch between menacing and seductive. Barry Stone's cinematography, often hand-held and grungy, beautifully captures the freewheeling essence of youth. In the movie's quieter moments, his images evoke a lonesome, dream-like quality that's absolutely stunning. Stone's work is complemented by Frank Kruse's sound design and Rowan Oliver's score, both marvelously ethereal.
Murray's script, though, is so threadbare in offering character motivations and background that it hobbles the performances, as good as they are, and leaves the task of glossing over its weaknesses to the technical department. As well crafted as it is, Mouth to Mouth's sound mix eventually bogs the movie down, always thrumming and howling with music and texture to cover the gaping dramatic holes in its script. Sherry is a wayward teenager who resents her mother, but what ails her specifically? The nature of her and Rose's mutual friction is never realized and developed. As a mother, Rose is a moron, nothing more, and Sherry, when all's said and done, is a blandly rebellious teen like any other. What motivates the borderline criminal Harry to do what he does? There is no engine driving this story, just a filmmaker summoning tropes about freedom, authority, and the costs accompanying both. Finally, Murray really tests our patience by her experimenting with interpretive dance routines that periodically interrupt the story action. These moments mean to underscore character relationships, but they feel out-of-place, like superfluous commentary on a story that's hardly even there.