Tribeca 2011: Too much motherhood for Toni Collette?
Few contemporary actresses have played the put-upon mother, particularly of gifted or difficult children, as often as Toni Collette. She tried to come to terms with Haley Joel Osment's psychic gifts in "The Sixth Sense," attempted suicide as a mother of a lost-soul 12-year-old in "About a Boy" and sought to manage a catatonic teenage son and fragile young daughter in "Little Miss Sunshine." She'll star as a mom once again -- to Anton Yelchin -- in the upcoming "Fright Night" remake.
And of course the Australian actress plays an outrageous incarnation of the mother character on "United States of Tara," the Showtime series in which she stars as a suburban mom with disassociative-personality disorder.
Collette's latest matriculation in the Academy for Maternal Dysfunction comes with "Jesus Henry Christ," an independent dramedy produced by Julia Roberts' production company that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival over the weekend.
In the film, which director Dennis Lee developed from his short of the same name, Collette plays a feminist single mother to a precocious 10-year-old with a photographic memory. The boy was conceived in a petri dish, and the movie features a paternity-mystery storyline and a lot of absurdist sight gags. (Michael Sheen costars as an emotionally clueless professor.)
Collette's propensity for mother characters was underscored when Lee stood up before the screening to announce that the actress couldn't be in attendance because she had, in real life, given birth to a baby boy the day before. He then prompted the audience to send her some collective well wishes, which he filmed and emailed to her.
Yes, yes, congratulations to Collette and her husband on their second child. But after seeing "Jesus Henry Christ," we're starting to wonder whether she's played the same mother character one too many times on the big screen.
Collette's character faces moments of emotional difficulty along the lines of "The Sixth Sense," and the movie's attempts at wacky comedy and poignancy call back, rather baldly, to her turn in "Little Miss Sunshine," without quite the same results.
Lee's movie, shifting abruptly between earnest drama and cartoonish comedy, was tepidly received by the Tribeca crowd -- but not specifically because of Collette's performance. "Jesus Henry Christ" does not yet have a U.S. distribution deal.
Going back to her breakout as an ABBA-loving misfit in "Muriel's Wedding" and in roles like the strait-laced sister of "In Her Shoes," Collette has demonstrated a lot of dramatic versatility. It's been a while since we've gotten to see it.
--Steven Zeitchik, from New York
Photo: A scene from "Jesus Henry Christ." Credit: The Tribeca Film Festival