Michelle and her teenage daughter Laura are close, extremely close, but in writer/director Renée Marie Petropoulos’ Tangles and Knots you’ll witness the particular balance of that bond tested, before becoming forever altered. With a relationship that feels more like friends, upon deciding that her daughter is not a little girl anymore, mother Michelle chooses to throw the kind of pool party every teenager dreams of, in the hope of enhancing her popularity. As the alcohol flows and things take a dark turn, Petropoulos’ intimate portrait of a blurry mother/daughter dynamic explores how the good-time vibe of their household quickly becomes hard to navigate once the outside world enters its ecosystem.
Right from the start of Tangles and Knots the bond between Michelle and Laura is quickly established. Bringing out the jello shots, hanging with her daughter’s friends and letting the kids trash her gorgeous house, Michelle is the kind of mom, that as a teenager (from a distance) you’d find incredibly cool. But in the context of the party, where Laura feels insecure, the last thing she needs is to fight for her guests’ attention. As the harmony of their relationship becomes strained, that dynamic immediately becomes weird, and Michelle realizes how their codependent relationship might have toxic consequences in such a situation. But at this point, is it too late for her to put the conventional mother hat on?
With such a complex narrative, it came as no surprise when Petropoulos shared with us that the inspiration behind Tangles and Knots came from many different directions, including an “ongoing obsession [she] had with complicated mother and daughter relationships”. I have to admit that I am usually disappointed by how those relationships tend to be portrayed on screen, but Petropoulos crafted a version of motherhood that manages to feel authentic, without being conformist. She constructs her narrative by using their relationship as a canvas to explore themes of sexuality and consent, through both the experience of the mother and the daughter.
“The film explores the idea of the threat of sexual violence being felt at any age”
Combining a female-driven narrative with an unsettling and ultimately unexpected coming-of-age story, the situation of Tangles and Knots may be very specific, but Petropoulos ensures it has universal impact. “The film explores the idea of the threat of sexual violence being felt at any age. I can’t think of any woman who hasn’t felt threatened, harassed or who has experienced assault in some form”, she adds.
Mostly shot handheld, the film has a very intimate aesthetic that relies heavily on the performances of the two main actors and includes a couple of powerful close-ups that capture everything left unsaid. Odessa Young portrays Laura’s innocence and insecurities with remarkable authenticity, but it’s Leeanna Walsman’s performance as Michelle that is truly breathtaking. From the realization that the weird boundaries of her relationship with her daughter might be toxic, to the heartbreaking last scene (that I personally did not see coming), where she occupies most of the frame, her performance is simply devastating.
Tangles and Knots was Petropoulos’ graduation film from the Directing MFA program of Columbia and premiered at the 2018 Berlinale in the Generation 14Plus competition. The short also went on to be selected at SXSW and Palm Springs ShortFest, before its online release as a Vimeo Staff Pick Premiere. Petropoulos is currently developing Tangles and Knots into a feature, which will aim to dig deeper into the complexities of the relationship between the two protagonists and navigate the aftermath of the events that happen in the short. She is also developing a horror feature film, a limited series, two short films and is part of MASC, an anthology webseries that explores masculinity through the lens of female and non-binary filmmakers.