Matriarch (2021)

The first thing we see in Matriarch is adult Christine (Olivia Day) and five-year-old boy Sam (Joshua Protzmann) asleep in bed alongside one another – for here, no relationship is more important or central than that between this young mother and her son. Christine’s partner Brad (K.C. Wolf) staggers into the apartment drunk and stoned, passing out on the sofa before he can shoot up the heroin that he has brought with him – and when Christine sees him snoring away with his drug baggy and syringe laid out by the empty beer cans on the living room table, she decides then and there that she needs to get her son away from this toxic environment. The following morning, she drives off with little Sam for the home of her estranged parents, Jean (Kirsten Roquemore) and Frank (Cletus Stanton), leaving the still sleeping Brad behind. 

Preston Thomas’ feature debut is both a portrait of, and a tribute to, single mother (and matriarch) Christine, as she struggles to find gainful employment, to pursue her educational ambitions, to rebuild her life and to raise her son. All the while, she must negotiate her relationship both with Brad and with Sam’s biological father Dane (Nick Blades) – both men from Christine’s past, even if only one will prove capable of the change that she needs on her path to growing up. Christine is smart and resourceful, but is also held back, not just by the ‘loser’ ex to whom, in moments of weakness, she returns, but also by chronic, sometimes crippling depression. Perhaps the way in which each scene in Matriarch seems awkwardly to play just a beat too long (despite the film’s relatively short overall duration), or the aloof blankness of some of the line deliveries, is a way of expressing that depression, and the sense of alienation that it instills in Christine. For all her strength of character, this matriarch is not always all there, and Thomas finds ways to present the fog in which she at times finds – or more precisely loses – herself. 

“You and I deserve better,” Christine tells Sam, “You know that, right?” – and her determination to overcome hardship and to improve both their lives, even as she seems set to become a mother once more, is the film’s principal theme. Closing credits expressly dedicate Matriarch to Thomas’ own mother Margery, before stating: “This film blurs the line between fact and fiction. Similarities between the characters of the film and real individuals are probably intentional.” Aside from inverting the terms of the conventional disclaimer, these words imply the very personal nature of the project. For this is a love letter from Thomas to Margery, presenting a version – with some dramatic licence – of her difficult early years of motherhood, and the critical decisions that she made in her own and her son’s better interests. It is also an origin story of sorts for its own making: for if we are left to wonder how things turned out for this pair, an answer lies in the existence of the film itself, written and directed by the son, and executive produced by the mother. 

strap: Preston Thomas’ semi-autobiographical drama portrays a young single mother’s struggles to overcome difficulties both external and internal

© Anton Bitel