I hated this movie. I hated almost everything about it – from its messy visceral analogue effects to its frustratingly circular storyline and stagnant character development – and it made me feel sick and uncomfortable. All that, of course, doesn’t in the least mean that Don Thacker’s Motivational Growth is a bad movie. In fact, the production is incredibly detailed, the acting competent to exceptional, and the script strange and unique. The movie is all the more exceptional for doing exactly what it means to do – make the viewer frustrated and uncomfortable.
The entire premise of the movie is one of desperate indecision, a man rotting in his own filth and aimlessness, spurred to action only by the demise of his television set and kept in motion by the motivations of a charismatic, sentient mold (Jeffrey Combs) growing in the corner by his bathroom sink. Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) hasn’t left his apartment in over a year. His personal hygiene is repulsive, his apartment is beyond filthy, and all he does all day is sit on his couch and watch whatever demented show happens to be on TV. When his TV dies, he can’t even seem to work up the motivation or force of will to do anything for what seems like days – he just lies around aimlessly. He finally decides to kill himself by mixing bleach and ammonia in the bathtub, but falls and hits his head while trying to plug the bathroom vent. When he wakes up – or seems to wake up – sometime later, the mold in the bathroom starts talking to him. From here on out, the mold makes Ian do and eat some pretty questionable things on the road to self improvement, and we’re never really sure what’s real and what’s illusion or what the mold really wants.
As I mentioned, this movie is pretty disturbing and actually fairly sickening. While I completely appreciate the creative analogue effects, which in many ways remind me of early John Carpenter or David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), there is a certain tangibility about these slimy, bumpy, porous, mushy, malleable effects that affects more deeply than the slickness of CGI can ever achieve. I was seriously sickened by some of the scenes, much like how I am affected by Naked Lunch or John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982). But that makes me admire these films all the more for leaving a lasting impression. It probably doesn’t help that one of the most frightening and vivid nightmares I had as a child involved a mold monster that instantly decomposed everything and everyone it touched. At the same time there is something sickly and deeply damaged about the film’s protagonist, a character who has lost the will to leave his apartment, to better himself, to live his life. And really, who can blame him, considering the class of people who invade his apartment from the world outside. If Ian’s world is filled with Box the Oxes, Plasmoday TV repair guys, and Vanessa-the-delivery-girls, the world must be a pretty frightening, disappointing, anxiety filled place.
And DiGiovanni plays his part well. There is a vacancy in his eyes that speaks to a deep, mysterious hopelessness that fills the audience with dread. Even when he cleans himself up, there is a weakness of will and an intense uncertainty. Every act of physical and mental exertion is performed under extreme protest and pessimism. He is actually a pretty horrendous and deplorable character, but mostly because it is feared he is what we will become. One day – if fate hands us a rotten deal, or if we break under the strain of one more rude customer, one more futile report, one more day where we fail to gain the recognition we feel we deserve – we might become Ian Folivor, rooted to our couch, watching pointless reruns of terrible shows, eating packaged noodles and greasy take out, our corpse rotting next to a sentient mold stain in the bathroom. And the tragedy of it all is that the mold has more personality and independent agency that Ian ever had. Jeffrey Combs has a lot to do with this. Combs, who is well known for his multiple roles on Star Trek: Deep Space 9 and for the Re-animator movie series, delivers all his versatile acting talents to bring to life a heavy-browed, snaggle-toothed lump of bathroom mold with all the overwhelming, scheming, deranged, charming, arrogantly self-righteous personality of John Huston. That’s what really drove me crazy watching this movie – trying to figure out of whom the mold reminded me. For some reason, I kept coming back to Chinatown, but unable to make the connection any further than that until I finally put it all together. Never trust a John Huston character.
In the end, Motivational Growth is probably one the strangest, most unique, and memorable movies I’ve ever seen. I hate it, but it has a certain pull that won’t let me go. Its one of those movies that will always stay with me, whether I like it or not. And I think its seriously reawakened some old, long standing, and deeply ingrained phobias.