Post-Happiness (1998), Todd Solondz’s brutally bleak exploration of lonely people living fractured lives, the idea that fellow 1990s indie Spanking The Monkey was ever controversial seems almost quaint in comparison. But David O Russell’s directorial debut caused something of a stir when it won the audience award at Sundance in 1994. It is, after all, about a young man who has a thing for his mum. Combine that with the lurid title – American slang for masturbation – and you’ve got a marketing man’s wet dream. Until you actually watch the movie that is. For while the Oedipal concept is undoubtedly icky, Russell’s film is much more about coming of age and making decisions than it is about thinking your mother is a bit of alright.
A young Jeremy Davies – now best known for his role as the cowardly corporal in Saving Private Ryan – makes Ray believable if not entirely likeable, suffocating during a long, hot summer as he helps his mother Susan (Alberta Watson) recuperate from a leg-breaking accident.
But while his teenage ambitions are apparently being destroyed by his controlling parents (Benjamin Hendrickson is terrific as the monstrous travelling-salesman dad), Ray is really a victim of his own inexperience and inability to step back and just say no.
Russell captures that particular mid-youth paralysis brilliantly. And while his commentary wryly comments on things that he’d choose to do differently now (no dog munching groceries as Ray tries to seduce a schoolgirl, for one), Spanking… retains worth in its own right, beyond seeing where the creator of Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees came from.