Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu) – Review

Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu)Road trip movies are so very rarely about the destination. Rather, they are about the emotional journey the character(s) will undertake whilst going about their route. In the case of Hilmar Oddsson’s offbeat comedy drama, Driving Mum, it just so happens that one of the passengers on this road trip is dead.

The imaginatively named Jón Jónsson (Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson) has been living with his cantankerous mother (played by Kristbjörg Kjeld) in the remote Westfjords in Northwestern Iceland. It is 1980 and they seem to have got themselves into a routine whereby they knit all day and listen to cassettes of old radio broadcasts. There are no signs of life for miles around and they get deliveries of the essentials – including more listening material – via rowing boat. Their only companion is their dog, Brezhnev.

One day, whilst in the middle of a knitting session, Mamma asks Jón what he will do when she dies. Right on cue, she passes away that same night. The stirringly emotional scenes of her sobbing, asking her own mother if she is ready to receive her as she has laid out her best clothes, are swiftly undercut by Jón’s attempt at funereal make up. He’s turned his mother into Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? with a thick layer of lipstick and blush.

And it’s this sort of tone – a moment of stillness followed by another of silliness or, perhaps, surrealism – that permeates the entire film. Oddsson has chosen to shoot in a striking, high contrast black and white, splitting the film into drily named chapters. There’s a circus troupe that crops up periodically to dance around Jón’s clapped out Cortina. Jón imagines – or does he? – that his mother perks up every so often to chide him.

The dynamic between the two lead actors is fascinating. Þröstur Leó Gunnarsson constantly looks battle weary, as if even he doesn’t understand how his life has turned out the way it has. There’s a real isolation about him – he chooses to see the world through the lens of his camera, rather than participate in it. It’s a solid performance and, despite his emotional distance, it’s one that is surprisingly easy to build rapport with. As he encounters several absurdities, you almost expect him to perform a confused “are you seeing what I’m seeing?” look to camera. Kristbjörg Kjeld’s piercing start dominates the rear view mirror, her snooty remarks chipping away at her son with every rolling R.

Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu)Óttar Guðnason’s cinematography really capitalises on the sweeping Icelandic countryside. We don’t need to see the verdant landscapes in full colour to know how special and enchanting they are. Oddsson uses moments of silence as we watch the car trundle along the uneven roads to showcase the drama of their surroundings. This is particularly so when a mist descends, lending the film a dream- or fairytale-like quality.

Throughout the road trip, Jón encounters a number of strange and curious characters. No one – truly, no one – seems to react when he tells them that his backseat passenger is dead. Instead, he has farmers asking if she’s just “dead tired”, a policeman remarking that his car needs a service and a ridiculously horny middle-aged woman having sex with him whilst she sings Yes, Sir, I Can Boogie. Whoever said Iceland was all Fair-Isle sweaters and no laughs was dead wrong. If you’ll pardon the pun.

The film looks like it’s headed towards a dramatic conclusion – no spoilers here as to what that might be – as Jón slowly comes to terms with the type of person his mother really was. There’s then another twenty minutes or so tacked on to the run time. Whilst it does provide another few laughs, it does rather cheapen the power of Jón’s first real act of independent thought. It’s a shame as it’s not at all necessary and brings the film to a stuttering halt as opposed to a sharp finale.

Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu) is bittersweet, strange, moving and absurd. Sometimes it’s all of those things all at once. It is gentle and unobtrusive; it is smoothly paced throughout. Despite feeling that it’s about fifteen to twenty minutes too long, this is definitely an enjoyable watch with plenty to leave you laughing, mildly confused or truly shocked.

Driving Mum (Á Ferð með Mömmu) is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival 2023. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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