Motivational Growth takes depressive fugue state to a new level. Director Don Thacker creates an apartment wonderland of dreamy, druggy fantasy by following the reclusive Ian Folliver (Adrian DiGiovanni) as he contemplates suicide, attempts to fix his old tube television, and befriends a blob of mold in his bathroom – all of this, without even leaving the setting at all. It’s an odd style of film, influenced by the messy splatter flicks of old like Street Trash and The Stuff, and Thacker isn’t afraid to step away from the conventional narrative format to tell his story. But while it’s nice to have animation and video game cutscenes, do they really work in context?
The short answer is yes, at least in part. As Motivational Growth begins, Thacker presents the overarching scenario via Ian’s consistent breaking of the fourth wall, narrating to the audience about his attachment to television and his reclusive nature. While it’s helpful for the audience to know about Ian, and to explain his attempts at suicide, it’s also slow going for the first part of the film, layering on lots of lengthy scenes and exposition.
Eventually, though, the film’s 8-bit soundtrack begins to fit in with the off-kilter style of Thacker’s direction. The obsession with television starts to seep into Ian’s hallucinations, prompting him to envision himself in animated vignettes or television series Thacker creates for the film. It’s meant to be open-ended and surreal, and the motive behind The Mold’s (voiced by Jeffrey Combs) influence is often unclear as to whether he means good or ill.
Once the viewer gets through the slow opening, Motivational Growth really opens up into its plot. Ian loses his obsession with TV and finds a new attraction to the girl next door, Leah (Danielle Doetsch), and The Mold prompts him to find the courage to go out and get her. Thacker presents an odd symbiosis between the two that also feels toxic, as a relationship with mold should: despite The Mold’s “help”, he’s also responsible for a couple of people’s deaths. Motivational Growth is more messy than gory, but it does have its moments of violence that force the viewer to question exactly what’s going on in Ian’s mind.
Despite its wacky and esoteric moments, Thacker’s film does suffer from its length. Thacker’s previous work has been writing and directing for short films, and while Motivational Growth is segmented into various vignettes with philosophical titles (like “Contraflexure”, the point of a beam where no bending occurs), he often allows scenes to drag out for too long. Awkward conversations, sometimes intentional, feel stilted because they play out despite little actually being said. The film’s finale, where Ian finally meets Leah and they sort of fall for each other, becomes a test of the viewer’s patience to get to the conclusion.
The reward for that patience is subject to viewer appreciation, because Motivational Growth does not offer a clear moral or message at the end of the film. In fact, the reality of much of what happens is left for the audience to contemplate, because eventually the story circles back on itself to a point directly after Ian tries to kill himself. Was it all a fever dream induced by chemicals and a head injury? Or was it a purgatory of sorts that allows Ian to finally find his way into the light, as evidenced by his venture out of his apartment?
Thacker allows the viewer to decide, which can be both a discussion-starter and a frustration. Motivational Growth is only as effective and endearing if the viewer accepts its eccentricities, especially with its reluctance to explain itself at every turn. For this viewer, appreciation of the special effects and the shout-outs to multiple forms of media are enough to buoy the film’s slower moments. Motivational Growth tends to grow on the viewer like mold, slowly building the spores of grotesqueness and bleak humor.