Deeply depressed, Ian B. Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) hasn’t left his cluttered, filthy apartment in over a year. When his sole companion (a vintage TV set he’s christened “Kent”) dies suddenly, Ian decides to end it all by gassing himself with cleaning chemicals. After he falls from his sink trying to cover up the ventilation in his bathroom, Ian is woken by the avuncular Mold (voiced by Jeffrey Combs) who offers him the chance to turn his life around, so long as he does exactly as he’s told. But is it really wise to trust something that grew from the grime in the corner of your bathroom? The Mold may be happy to protect Ian from demonic plasma TV salesmen and his brutish landlord “Box the Ox” (Pete Giovagnoli), but his methods are extreme to the point of murderous. Moreover, once Kent develops his own voice (he speaks in snippets of recycled TV shows) it becomes clear that Ian is caught up in a conflict beyond his understanding, and it’s no simple battle between good and evil.
With the elevator pitch “bathroom scum gives life advice”, Motivational Growth was always going to be a weird movie. What’s more interesting is how carefully crafted a weird movie it is. It combines deliberately kitschy practical mold and splatter effects, a quirky chiptune soundtrack, SNES-style animated sequences, imaginary bad TV shows, and extended hallucinatory scenes in a way that could have been chaotic but instead feels quite deliberate. This mix of styles manages to convey a strong sense of Ian’s inner life, while preventing the single setting (almost everything happens in Ian’s tiny apartment) from becoming too monotonous. The writing (which is just this side of too clever for its own good) supports this by keeping everything surreal enough that none of the disparate elements seem jarring.
Adrian DiGiovanni deserves a special mention here, as Ian carries pretty much the entire movie both as main character and (nearly-reliable) narrator. DiGiovanni’s performance manages to be witty, affecting, and slightly repellent all at once. Jeffrey Combs’ voicing of The Mold is also pitch-perfect – by turns comforting, grandfatherly, and menacing.
Unfortunately, all this good stuff does serve to highlight the bad. The rest of the cast are simply not up to DiGiovanni or Combs’ level, and struggle to deliver the somewhat arch script with the flair it needs to really land. The archness of the script also becomes grating in and of itself at times, and (while it’s potentially justified by the way the plot seems to live inside Ian’s head) the love interest neighbour is a particularly flagrant example of the hollow wish-fulfillment girl-as-prize. I also found the final ambiguity of the ending something of a cop-out, but I strongly suspect that mileage will vary on this.
All in all Motivational Growth is certainly flawed, but it’s also a pretty impressive first feature from writer-director Don Thacker. Recommended.
Available on DVD from MVD Visual.