Reviews Short Documentary

Mothertruckers (2022) – 3 stars

Director: Paula Romero Gonzalez

Writer: Paula Romero Gonzalez

Running time: 15mins

The one thing which Paula Romero Gonzalez’s augmented-reality / sci-fi / slice-of-life / road-movie / documentary does not lack is ambition. In its finest moments, it is a delightfully bizarre affair, following truck driver Lisa Melbourne as she tries to dispel the unwelcome clichés associated with her profession.

But as I have spent a lifetime learning, a Jack of all trades tends to suffer from a few fatal shortcomings. Even as it remains enjoyable, at various moments, Mothertruckers seems to be at war with itself – and in the enclosed space of a 15-minute short, that can make it a slightly baffling documentary, which is harder to engage with than it needs to be.

Summing this up immediately is the opening sequence, which would usually lead to a title screen. As talk-radio and sports commentary blare from various speakers, heavy goods vehicles sit idle at a service station. A distant shot shows rows of the juggernauts with their lights on, glowing like the Las Vegas Strip. It is a beautiful image, which Romero Gonzalez seems reluctant to dwell on – giving us multiple shots of the park rather than allowing us to enjoy one or two of the most eye-catching.

Into this glowing oasis wanders the animated silhouette of a woman, and suddenly the vehicles around her transform into boxy, 2D renditions of lorries, while mountains spring up ahead to finally block out the night sky. The animated scene is not necessarily bad, it is just not as interesting to look at as the reality which preceded it – the underwhelming nature of which is then undermined by the ringing of Melbourne’s alarm clock. This was a dream-sequence, and if we were in any doubt about that, Melbourne launches into a distinctly pedestrian monologue about it.

“Dreams, everyone has dreams. An escape from the ordinary and routine.”

In just over a minute, then, two imaginative styles of delivery have tried to shout over each other, priming us for a very distinct, unconventional film – before a blunt, more literal third voice has put them right back in the box to clarify what we’re supposed to be getting from any of this. In a film with such a short running time, any one of distinct styles would have found it hard enough to find the breathing space needed to be effective, but all together, they continuously constrict and suffocate each other, leaving the viewer insufficiently served on any front.

Most overtly underscoring these shortcomings is the factoid the film finally presents us with in the end credits. Mothertruckers takes its name, not from best-left-forgotten 2002 Playstation 2 title Big Mutha Truckers, but from the ‘Mothertruckers – Lady Truckers Club’, founded in 2012 by Wendy Priestley. The group was formed to encourage more women into the trucking industry – which is still predominantly staffed by men. You might think a film following one of only 2,000 women driving trucks – of 300,000 drivers in the UK – would want to foreground this at least towards the beginning of the film.

At the same time, you might also think that such a film would want to find out what has attracted those 2,000 women to the profession, or what puts them off. To an extent we get some of the former from Melbourne’s continuing monologue (more on that soon), with her outlining some of the wistful perks of constant haulage that listeners to Alice Isn’t Dead are already aware of. The opportunity to explore the world from a different perspective; the time and space to think and understand oneself; the chance to enjoy a feeling of independence in a society where women are still culturally and institutionally denied it. But as Melbourne herself admits later, for all she knows, that’s just her, and the other women on the roads – some of whom make wordless cameos in a quickfire montage at the end – may see something totally different in it.

During that sequence, it seems the film is crying out to simply have the testimony of those women in here. Why did they become truckers? What were the barriers, aside from the £3,000 training fee noted in an earlier radio report? Have other people tried to force them out of the profession – either from the industry, or within their family units? And for all this talk about freedom, do you feel like your wings have been clipped since Brexit and the pandemic left British trucking demonstrably less able to travel onto Mainland Europe?

We haven’t really heard any of that from Melbourne. Honestly, it is hard to tell what we have heard from her at all. Throughout most of her time speaking, Melbourne’s tone is deliberate, her delivery precise and passionless. When she speaks to her mother, and suddenly takes on a much more organic pattern of speaking, it becomes crystal clear that she has been reading the rest of her testimony. This begs the question as to how much of Mothertruckers – a documentary seemingly about her – actually comes from her. After all, while Melbourne is an author herself (the credits note this film was inspired by her book Drive, which it spells “Driver”), Mothertruckers’ submission-credits on FilmFreeway list director Romero Gonzalez as its only writer. Some of Melbourne’s lengthy musings on life on the road, must have come from her – but how much is unclear.

Either way, after she acknowledges that by only hearing from her, we may be missing a sizeable part of the picture, the movie simply moves to wrap up without addressing it further. Sitting in the cab of her truck, Melbourne finds the road ahead is blocked by the Moon. The 3D rendering of the celestial body is well managed, even if it is far from being to scale, and ties together nicely with Melbourne’s suggestion that she felt like her cab was her “spaceship”. The final shot sees her charging toward the obstruction, decked out in a NASA spacesuit.

It’s a wonderfully bonkers finale to a film that, in spite of its flaws, has been entertaining and highly original. The problem is it feels like it is being presented as an alternative to actually addressing the existential flaw the film identified moments before. It is a cinematic “I have to go now, my planet needs me”, leaving us with more questions than answers – and that is probably not ideal for a documentary on a subject which has been traditionally overlooked and ideologically obscured.

There are many individual aspects to admire in Mothertruckers. It features excellent cinematography, well rendered special effects, snappy animation design, and a willingness to tell an under-represented story. But it does not give itself enough space to blend its many ambitions into a seamless whole. Either its creators needed to extend the running time, and include more sources, or to be brutal enough in the editing process to leave some of them on the cutting room floor, and help the remaining ideas to find the space to shine.

1 comment

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: