Coming-of-age drama collides with sci-fi thriller.
Even at the edge of extinction, some things about humanity will never change, like the rocky road of coming-of-age. An unnamed girl may be raised in a doomsday bunker by an android called Mother, but despite never having met another teen, her path to maturity is nonetheless marked with recklessness and rebellion. To know who we might become, we first must call into question all we know and have been. And in I Am Mother, a teen girl known only as Daughter will change the future of mankind when she challenges the only world she’s ever known.
Directed by Grant Sputore, I Am Mother begins in a labyrinthine “population center,” in which 65,000 human embryos are in cryogenic stasis. This will be a place for mankind to repopulate, following the world-ravaging horrors of an “extinction event.” But for now, the only one wandering its halls is Mother, who selects a single embryo to develop in an artificial womb. Mother (voiced in a whisper by Rose Byrne) sings the Dumbo lullaby “Baby Mine” over a charming montage of Daughter’s childhood. She grows before our eyes. There she is as a toddler, lumbering about the cold halls. There she is cuddling a toy rabbit as she cozies up to Mother’s charging station. One particularly touching moment shows the child bedecking her robot parent with colorful stickers of smiling animals. Years later, when Daughter is a stern-faced young woman, a few of these stickers remain, visually reminding the audience of a simpler time, when they were mother and daughter, and that was all the girl need know.
But as she grows up, Daughter (Clara Rugaard) grows curious and lonely. She wants to know more about the world beyond her walls, more about the contagion from which Mother safeguards her. But more than anything, she wants a family, a big one. Developing more embryos is the carrot that leads Daughter to obedience, whether during school lessons on medicine and morals or the extermination of a could-be pet. But when an outsider (Hilary Swank) unexpectedly crashes into their home, Daughter’s faith in Mother is threatened. Mother and this stranger face off over Daughter, telling her conflicting stories of the world. And so I Am Mother becomes more than a coming-of-age story, but also a thriller about who to trust and whose path to choose.
By centering on Daughter, the film invites the audience to play along as she plays detective, unearthing the truth between conflicting narratives. By this point, we’ve spent much time with Mother, who has been nothing but patient and caring to Daughter. However, she looks a little unsettlingly like a cross between contemporary walking bots and HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey. But her voice is gentle, where the stranger’s voice is ever aggressive. But the stranger’s face is familiar and human. And in a clever bit of casting, Swank and Rugaard look so similar they could be family, down to the long, straight brown hair and the sharp eyes. Tribalism threatens to come into play. But Daughter must be wary. Her deep desire for community gives each of these figures a powerful means to manipulate her. And it’s up to her (and us) to parse through the clues to find out what’s real.
While this is an apocalyptic thriller with splashes of action and sci-fi spectacle, I Am Your Mother is chiefly a tale of internal struggle told through three strong performers. Byrne’s voice paints Mother as tender, but also remote. Even in arguments or life-and-death scenarios, her voice won’t crack, quaver, or rise. Which is alternately comforting and unnerving. Swank is Byrne’s foil, full of emotions messy and very human. She’ll scream and scowl, glower and growl. Yet there’s an exhilarating energy whatever her mood, and it’s easy to understand why Daughter is drawn to her. But the bulk of the film rests on Rugaard’s slim shoulders. And she handles it with a graceful aplomb. Her performance threads the needle between the other two leads. Her exterior is often calm and collected, as you might expect from a girl raised by a robot. But beneath burns the hormones and heart of a defiant teenager. Her eyes burn with questions she’s afraid to ask. Her voice cracks in pleas and recriminations. And a soft smile breaks when she’s told of the promise of a handsome boy her own age, a dream she might soon hold in her hands.
Confining its feuding leads in what is essentially a cage, the first two acts are taut with tension. But the third throws out its map, and casts its heroine into new terrain, emotionally and literally. From here, I Am Mother gets a bit lost. It’s pace, once slow-burn, now feels meandering. And there are questions of mythos that feel less resolved and more forgotten. Yet, there was a thrill in not knowing where this story might go. Which–after a wonky detour–makes its climax freshly enthralling, even if the resolution feels a wee bit unearned.