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Apron Strings

D: Vaele Sima Urale / 90m

Cast: Laila Rouass, Scott Wills, Jennifer Ludlam, Nathan Whitaker, Leela Patel, Jodie Rimmer, Kate Harcourt, Peter Elliott, Gary Young

Michael (Whitaker) is a young Indian student whose mother, Anita (Rouass) is estranged from her sister, Tara (Patel).  On the pretext of doing a college project, he visits his aunt at the restaurant she runs, while keeping his visit a secret from Anita.  He and Tara hit it off and he visits more often until she offers him a job there.  Anita, meanwhile, is at odds with the producers of the TV cookery programme she hosts: about the content, about the recipes, and about the costumes she’s asked to wear.

One of Tara’s regular customers is Barry (Wills).  He’s a middle-aged man still living at home with his mother, Lorna (Ludlam) and his Nan (Harcourt).  Barry is drifting through life looking for one get-rich-quick scheme to pay off after another, and he sponges off his mother – who runs a cake shop – with unvarying results: the money is always wasted.  Lorna’s attempts at tough love are undermined by her soft-hearted nature, even when Barry gets into debt through his attempts to get local baker Minh (Young) to buy out his mother’s business.

As Michael gets to know his aunt, and the family history, he begins to pull away from his mother.  This only adds to the anger she feels over her cookery programme, and their relationship suffers even further.  Michael spends more time at Tara’s restaurant until, suspicious of what her son has been doing, Anita follows him there.  Meanwhile, Lorna also has to deal with the return of her daughter, Virginia (Rimmer), several months pregnant and refusing to take on her mother’s ideas of conformity.  With passions running high in both families, each member has to look at themselves before they can make peace with each other.  But can they?

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A subtly ambitious tale that takes in themes of racism, community, homophobia – Michael is gay – injured pride, personal responsibility and motherhood, Apron Strings is a small-scale drama that tells its various stories with simple precision throughout.  Both main stories involve mothers who have become distant from their sons, and who no longer understand them.  The blame for this seems squarely laid at the doors of Anita and Lorna, but it’s offset by their unswerving love for their children, as both women strive to ensure their children are happy.  The movie shows how difficult it can be to be both supportive and unsupportive depending on the situation, and how walking such a tightrope can backfire on the mother.

The movie also shows us how striking out on their own can undermine the best intentions of the two sons.  Michael aims to reunite Anita and Tara but he’s unprepared for the emotions that learning about his aunt and his mother’s fractured relationship are awakened in him.  He finds it difficult to reconcile the image he has of his mother with that of the proud young woman who made a difficult choice in her youth and has fought hard not to let that decision define her.  With Michael so sure of his racial identity, and having such a strong sense of family, that his mother has turned her back on all that, proves too much of a shock.  And yet, by being gay, he runs the risk of his own community rejecting him, making his own need to make a decision about his future all the more important.

Alternately, Barry is a lazy conniver, a wastrel who thinks being rich will solve all his problems, and the problems he perceives his mother has.  He’s the classic underachiever who thinks he’ll make his mother proud by hitting the jackpot, but he fails to recognise that she loves him all the same, and would do even if he was working at a mundane nine-to-five job, and as long as he was content.  But Barry is restless, with no chance of getting a job, or beginning a relationship, and with no pride in his appearance.  He struggles with himself and rebels against his mother’s hopes for him, failing time after time and never learning from the experience.

As the two mothers trying hard to connect with their sons, Rouass and Ludlam both turn in polished performances that make the audience waver in their sympathies for them, as each woman is allowed to appear strong and determined and yet flawed at the same time.  Rouass is at her best when railing against the constraints Anita believes her cultural background have placed on her, and she simmers with an anger that clearly has deep-seated roots.  It’s an impressive performance, a precise, detailed characterisation that is at once charming and distressing in its emotional candour.  Ludlam is equally good, Lorna’s tired efforts to rein in her best intentions and play the hard line blunted continually by what she sees as the need to be a caring, though accommodating mother.  She too is suffused with anger, but it’s an anger that has been compromised over time and it no longer carries the emotional weight that would enable Lorna to overcome the inadequacies she feels in dealing with her son (and her daughter).

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With two such strong, committed performances, it’s reassuring that under the equally strong and committed direction of Urale – making her feature film debut – the other performances aren’t overwhelmed in the process.  Wills plays Barry as a sad, desperate individual with few redeeming qualities but who is strangely sympathetic as well, a neat trick given the levels of perfidy that Barry will stoop to.  Patel provides the cultural and racial grounding that informs the audience, and paints a moving portrait of a woman whose sense of family obligation has paved the way for her own happiness and sense of purpose in life.  And Michael’s sense of confusion and anger over what he perceives is his mother’s betrayal of her heritage is neatly handled by Whitaker, as well as his conflicted emotions.

Each of these performances wouldn’t be quite so good if it wasn’t for the carefully constructed and multi-layered screenplay by Shuchi Kothari.  Her only feature length screenplay to date, it contains – and maintains – a level of detail that makes it easy for Urale to deliver an affecting, quietly moving piece that looks at the generational divide evident in today’s society, and which does its best to show that bridges can be built when the willingness is there on both sides.

Rating: 8/10 – a moving portrait of two families struggling to deal with the emotional fallout from unfulfilled dreams and desires, Apron Strings is a finely tuned drama that deserves a wider audience; and the scenes of Indian food being prepared are as mouth-watering as you’d expect.