The highs and lows of life as a single parent over two decades are captured in this affecting documentary from the UK


Source: CPH:DOX


Dir: Victoria Mapplebeck. UK. 2024. 91mins

Being pregnant for the first time can feel like dropping a bomb onto your life, even at the best of times. For London-based director Victoria Mapplebeck, the shifts were seismic and profound after she found herself skint, single and pregnant at the age of thirty-eight. Realising that freelance directing was no longer a viable career, she quit television. But she continued filming, turning first her DVCAM, then five generations of smartphones, onto her life with her son, Jim.

 A candid, unsentimental, perceptive and, at times, profoundly moving portrait of the highs and lows of motherhood

Shot over nearly two decades, this is a candid, unsentimental, perceptive and, at times, profoundly moving portrait of the highs and lows of motherhood. It’s an impressive achievement, not least for the fact that Mapplebeck (who won a Bafta for her 2019 smartphone-shot short Missed Call) manages to coax something more than grunts out of her son, even during the militantly uncooperative adolescent years.

There is something deeply affecting about watching a child take shape over time, as demonstrated by the cultural impact of the Seven Up television series and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Part of the considerable appeal of Motherboard is the fact that we get to know Jim, a quirky, funny, articulate kid who, over the course of the film’s 90-minute running time, grows into a creative and likeable young adult. But what makes the film so distinctive and relatable is the dual focus on both the child and the parent; a parent who is prompted to examine her tricky relationship with her own largely absent father.

The audience might not have shared all of Mapplebeck’s experiences as a single mother weathering a breast cancer diagnosis, a pandemic, her child’s depression and the eventual wrenching realisation that she is no longer the centre of her son’s world, but it’s hard to imagine that any parent would watch the film without a twinge of recognition. And this universality of themes, plus Mapplebeck’s impressively light touch as filmmaker/subject, could make this a title of interest for documentary specialist distributors.

It’s tempting, when describing the picture, to focus on the rocky patches and the disasters navigated. But, in fact, this is a film with humour at its heart from the outset. Mapplebeck, in a dry voiceover, acknowledges the absurdity of embarking on the journey of parenthood with a man with whom she had been on a total of four dates. Jim’s father, diplomatically unnamed in the film, is more of an absence than a presence throughout, but Jim has sporadic, largely unsatisfying contact after he decides as a teenager that he wants to get to know his dad.

For the most part, it’s up to Mapplebeck to do double duty, filling the role of both mother and father for her growing son. Through an extraordinary wealth of footage, dating from the first ultrasound scan onwards, we see the fun they had together, the songs sung, the holidays shared as well as trickier moments.

One of the more notable aspects of the film is the fact that Mapplebeck was organised enough to be present and effective as a parent, while also keeping track of the vast cache of material that she had shot over the years. The other takeaway is the courage that Mapplebeck brings to the project with her decision to keep shooting even after her diagnosis with cancer cast doubt on her future, both as a mother and as a filmmaker. But then, as she explains in the film, one way of achieving a deeper understanding of life and the stuff it throws at you – even cancer  – is to look at it through a lens.

Production company: First Person Films

International sales: Autlook Filmsales

Producer: Victoria Mapplebeck

Cinematography: Victoria Mapplebeck

Editing: Oli Bauer, Victoria Mapplebeck

Music: Jamie Perera