In 2014, is self-imposed isolation and entertainment addiction really that unusual of a lifestyle choice? To answer that question we’ll peer into yet another human rat’s nest in the strange tale that is Don Thacker’s Motivational Growth, featuring Adrian DiGiovanni as American hikikomori Ian Folivor. When his beloved retro television set explodes, Ian attempts suicide in his filthy bathroom, only to come face to face with a sentient fungus, The Mold (Jeffrey Combs), who has big plans for Ian.
Motivational Growth is a swirling, surreal nightmare of gross-out humor, social anomie, blood and guts, body horror, sexual frustration, and of course, mold. Think Little Shop of Horrors meets Eraserhead, with liberal dashes of Scott Pilgrim and Kafka’s Metamorphosis for added flavor. Growth fits into that category of horror that does not so much inspire fear as much as revulsion. Writer/director Don Thacker certainly has an eye for interesting (and mentally indelible) visuals; the candy-colored 16-bit animation sequences will be a treat for those who grew up with a Super Nintendo, as well as those who just like a lot of really cool stuff on their television screen, though it’s debatable how much they add to the storytelling.
Peeling back the layers of color and spectacle, however, what are we left with? While Growth does present something of a character arc for Ian, the film eschews the traditional three-act structure in favor of an episodic format, separated by title cards that are more distracting than anything else. Not a whole lot happens over the course of this nearly two-hour film, and if you’re like me, by about the third-way point you’ll start checking how much more there is left to go. Does Ian really need to get in an argument with the Mold again; does another “quirky” character need to stop by Ian’s apartment and be weird again? Besides being repetitive, practically all of the film’s conflict arises out of interpersonal relations, rather than Ian trying to defy destiny and deal with his insane circumstances. This, along with the fact that there are only two major locations in the entire film, means that Growth ends up resembling a stage play much more than a work of cinema.
The other major flaw of Growth, perhaps its fatal one, lies in its characterizations. What does Ian, exactly, want? Distraction? Escape? Romantic consummation? These are goals, of sorts, but not of the explicit kind that drive dramatic tension (after all, don’t we all want these things?). In fact, Ian is almost completely passive, allowing the Mold to have his way with a minimum of resistance. Even worse, we are never shown what drove Ian to become a hermit and a slob in the first place. Was there some great trauma that led him to withdraw from the world? We don’t really know. It just is.
The same goes for the Mold. Whether or not the Mold is a figment of Ian’s imagination, as an antagonist, the Mold’s motivations are left just as ambiguous as Ian’s. The movie poses the story as Ian learning that the Mold’s intentions are more sinister than first let on, but neither Ian nor we actually learn what these intentions are. The Mold transforms Ian into his arms and legs, but for what purpose?
The filmmaker opts for an inconclusive ending. Done right, this device can be delightful (Mulholland Drive, Rashomon); done wrong, it leaves the audience puzzling and angst-ridden. I’m not ready to say which category Growth falls into yet, but despite my criticisms, I still think it’s worth a watch, if just for the snappy dialog and bizarre sequences of trash television, vintage video games and Möbius strip narrative stylings. Great cinema? Perhaps not. But Motivational Growth is certainly a memorable viewing experience.