With Jeffrey Combs, Adrian DiGiovanni, Danielle Doetsch, Pete Giovagnoli, and Ken Brown; Written and directed by Don Thacker; No MPAA rating (patently adult); 104 minutes.
Writer-director Don Thacker’s debut feature MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH is a curious cult oddity about the initially inspiring but ultimately codependent and destructive relationship between a man and a large chunk of sentient fungus growing on his bathroom floor. This probably requires a bit more explanation.
Ian B. Folliver (played by Adrian DiGiovanni, looking like a lost Turturro cousin) is a depressed agoraphobic who has not left his apartment in sixteen months. Nor has he cleaned it. Lounging around this pigsty on a filthy couch for days on end, Ian’s only emotional connection is with a vintage 1965 console television that he’s nicknamed Kent.
When the handsomely wood-paneled Kent blows a tube, our despondent Ian attempts suicide. He awakens on the bathroom floor at the urging of The Mold. Voiced by midnight movie staple Jeffrey Combs, The Mold is a disgusting puppet that resembles the McDonald’s character Grimace after an industrial accident. It’s also a pretty good life coach.
Referring to itself in the third person and demanding to be addressed as “The Mold,” never just “Mold,” the chatty fungus snaps Ian out of his funk, at which point the title “Motivational Growth” takes on a double meaning slightly groan-worthy even for aficionados of bad puns. Ian cleans up his act, shaves and even starts to get somewhere with the kooky gal down the hall (Danielle Doetsch) he’s been peering at through the peephole for weeks.
But something’s slightly off about Ian’s upward trajectory. He’s suffering from bizarre, ever-expanding interstitial interludes–surreal gross-out hallucinations inspired by crappy eighties television programs and exercise videos. The spot-on parodies include “Tough As Nails Tiger Team A” and (my personal favorite) “Officer Zygor, Alien Cop.” Ian often abruptly finds himself stranded inside channel-surfing montages, or retro video game animated sequences hounded by an 8-bit musical score. He also occasionally vomits up some sort of brightly colored, acidic substance.
Making the most of what must have been a miniscule budget, Thacker sticks to good old-fashioned practical special effects and a fondness for the garbage pop culture of days gone by. It’s not at all difficult to guess the movie’s final twist at least an hour in advance, but it feels like Thacker’s telegraphing it so that we’ll figure things out early on, then feel free to sit back and enjoy his screwy free-associations and out-of-nowhere shock cuts.
It doesn’t all work. The first half hour is rough going, providing the protagonist with too many soliloquies delivered directly into the camera. A lot of the acting is middling-to-terrible, save for Doetsch bringing a genuinely loopy charm to a role that purposefully makes no sense. (IMDB informs me that she previously starred in a movie called “Bikini Girls On Ice,” so I know what I’ll be renting this weekend.)
Despite such rookie mistakes, “Motivational Growth” announces a unique sensibility. It made me look forward to whatever Don Thacker does next. It also made me want to clean my bathroom.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.