Photography courtesy First Generation Media

Why Mouthpiece is the Feminist Film We Need Right Now

In trying to examine and understand a woman’s complex relationship with herself, the film exposes an anthropological truth.

There’s plenty the world doesn’t agree on these days—climate change, politics, whether Trump is guilty of collusion. But sometimes it seems as if no topic is quite as contentious and thorny as feminism. Which is why Patricia Rozema’s film adaptation of Mouthpiece, a play penned by Toronto playwrights/actors Amy Nostbakken and Norah Sadava, is so remarkable. Not only does it wrestle with some very big questions—including and especially what really lies at the root of a woman’s feminism—but it does so with a cinematic treatment that’s unexpected and experimental yet deeply honest.

In the film, which premiered at TIFF last fall and releases in theatres this weekend, Nostbakken and Sadava play two sometimes-sparring, sometimes-in sync manifestations of a single character’s inner voices. That character is Cassandra, a young woman whom the film follows in the immediate aftermath of her mother’s death. The grief and shock of the sudden loss—coupled with the fact that she has volunteered to write the eulogy for the funeral—forces her to examine her messy relationship with her mother, whose values and choices shaped the kind of feminist Cassandra grew up to be (spoiler: not a perfect one). But that’s the point of this introspective and thoughtful film: that feminism isn’t cut and dry, that there isn’t a good or bad way to be a feminist, that the kind of feminist you are is shaped by both internal and external forces you can never really know.

Over the three years they spent working on the play, which premiered in Toronto in 2015 under the duo’s theatre group Quote Unquote Collective (and even went for a brief spin to Los Angeles at the request of one Jodie Foster), Nostbakken and Sadava were forced to confront their own complicated relationships with feminism, ambition, body image, internalized misogyny and more. In trying to examine and understand a woman’s complex relationship with herself, the film exposes an anthropological truth: no matter how much of our feminism might seem like a reflection of the politics of today, it’s also laden with all the baggage of our mothers and our mothers’ mothers and so on. In short, feminism is a tale with no beginning or end, a Möbius strip of confusing continuity.

“It takes a lot of work to understand that our mothers were reacting to a different era,” says Sadava over coffee at the TIFF Canteen soon after the film’s premiere. “They were living in a different reality and if you’re not cognizant of that, if you’re not looking at the larger picture, the judgment can be so harsh, and cruel. The conversation has to keep reflecting back and forward at the same time which we try to do in the play and movie.”

The conversation around gender dynamics has changed vastly since the two began working on the play—#MeToo wasn’t a viral hashtag then, nor were we grappling as a culture with things like the difference between a “bad date” and sexual harassment. In what ways has their own feminism evolved since then?

“Now you have to live it,” says Nostbakken. “It’s one thing to come to the realization, but to not regress is a day-to-day battle. It’s so hard to accept that you will be the “angry feminist” in the room. You are that angry lady who’s saying ‘that’s offensive.’ In our 20s we were like, ‘that woman’s not getting laid tonight’ and now we are that woman.”

“But we still get laid,” quips Sadava.

In granting Cassandra the space (and the kindness) to wrestle with the woman she sometimes isn’t proud to be, the film invites viewers to do the same—to confront their own biases and internalized prejudices, but also to be more forgiving, more understanding, and more patient with themselves. It gently tells us that when it comes to feminism—or any kind of growth, really—the quest for perfection can be the enemy of progress. It’s an important message at this moment in time, when women feel so much pressure to be the very best version of a feminist that they can be.

“I was talking to someone the other day about how social media has created this condition of extreme views,” says Sadava. “We’ve stopped listening, we’ve stopped giving ourselves time to process anything because it’s just about reacting. And this film shows a woman processing so many difficult things… we need more of that. We need to start that internal monologue again.”

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