Like Turtles

By David Mandell | Drama
A homeless mother struggles to raise her son after losing her husband to cancer.

After losing her husband to cancer and amassing a crippling amount of medical debt, Molly and her young son Ronnie are left to fend for themselves and have lost everything.

Molly struggles to get back on her feet as she tries to keep her son healthy on the streets even with an asthma condition and find a job after a decade as a stay-at-home mom. She also tries to instill a sense of security and stability for her son, shielding him from the difficulty of their life. But when Ronnie’s asthma flares up, Molly must face the precariousness of her life, despite all of her attempts towards normality.

Written and directed by David Mandell and starring actor Troian Bellisario from TV favorite “Pretty Little Liars,” this short drama puts a personal, emotional face on the widespread problem of homelessness. It combines a visual naturalism, with handheld camerawork utilized in an almost doc-like way to capture the telling details of this family’s world, from the way they brush their teeth in a public fountain to the lived-in interior of their car.

The writing, though, patiently builds up the emotional reality of homelessness for this particular woman and her child. It focuses on Molly’s dilemma, as she must manage the logistical hurdles of having no permanent address and few job prospects while trying to be emotionally stable and available to her vulnerable young son. The storytelling and editing focus on this psychological juggling act, making for an emotionally intimate experience for the viewer.

With its expressive musical score and the nature of the material, the film could easily fall into melodrama. But it’s held together by a finely nuanced performance by Bellisario, who offers up an unvarnished, raw portrayal of a woman struggling against great odds. What works about her performance is how it places Molly’s role as a mother and protector at the foreground of her character.

From one scene to the next, she is always a mother trying to do her best for her son, whether it’s in the warm, patient way she talks and plays with Ronnie to her impatience and frustration when he demands a cheeseburger instead of the sandwich given to them. When she comes up against the obstacles that arise from their economic and social precariousness, it is always seen within the framework of motherhood, and it is never played for victimhood.

Molly never gives up, is as resourceful as possible in her circumstances and is always connected to the love and obligation she feels as a mother. As a result, Molly’s strength, vulnerability and immense love always shine through each moment of the short, even when she hits her lowest point and can no longer protect Ronnie from the harsh reality of their life.

“Like Turtles” ends with some sobering statistics about homelessness, which dovetail with its objective to give viewers an intimate, emotional understanding of the “slippery slope” that often leads to permanent homelessness. Molly has a lot of persistence and a bit of luck, but sadly, many people who struggle with homelessness in real life don’t. Storytelling like this aims to invoke empathy and compassion to put us into another’s shoes. It’s an almost old-fashioned approach — except that it is still so necessary in a world where problems like homelessness continue to persist, and people like Molly fall deeper in the cracks of society, to be forgotten or overlooked.

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