Last winter, writer-director Lukas Moodysson debuted his first English-language film, Mammoth, at the Berlin Festival to what I have read was a fairly brutal response; this honestly shocks me a little bit. I haven't read many of those early reviews at all (most of the ones I could find were in German), but the extremely small sample that I've dug into suggests that the main source of outrage was in the diagrammatic way the film uses the "First World = devouring and materialistic! Third World = noble and totally poor!" scheme that made e.g. Babel such a merciless brick of a movie. And this is fair; fair in the sense that Mammoth does indeed depict the differences between wealthy New Yorkers (one of them played by Gael García Bernal, who ironically enough was one of the poor people in Babel) and their immigrant housekeepers, and even then the difference between immigrant housekeepers in America and the truly horrid lifestyles they've left behind, and the overall theme does seem to be along the lines of "the more money you have, the more material things you will possess", but to jump from there straightaway to "Mammoth is a tawdry, exploit-the-undeveloped-countries piece of masturbation to make well-off white people feel better about themselves", because God knows that's not the kind of movie I was watching at all. But like I said, I didn't really read any of those early reviews, so let me not defend the movie against phantoms.

What I was expecting from my only previous run-in with Moodysson (2000's lovely Together) is pretty much exactly what I got: a very humanist study of a bunch of people who only start to realise in a fumbling way what it is that they want out of life, and that what they're doing right now isn't fulfilling. It's a bit sentimental and gooey, sure, but unlike so many other filmmakers, one gets the feeling that Moodysson actually really loves his characters and wants them to be happy, rather than putting stock characters though a series of heavily predictable trials and tribulations on the way to a forced happy ending and hopefully some Oscar nominations.

Those characters, in brief: Leo (García Bernal) and Ellen (Michelle Williams) Vidales, a married couple living in a gorgeous SoHo apartment with their daughter Jackie (Sophie Nyweide) and housekeeper/nanny Gloria (Marife Necesito); Gloria's children living back in the Philippines, Manuel (Martin Delos Santos) and Salvador (Jan David G. Nicdao); and Cookie (Run Srinikornchot) a prostitute that Leo meets on a beach in Thailand, where he has rather unhappily dragged himself to sign some papers sealing a deal between the successful international video game company that he started rather by accident. Leo has been forced, basically, to go to Bangkok by his right-hand man Bob (Thomas McCarthy, director of his own little scrap of humanism vs. the big bad world, The Visitor), the only person in the movie who gets treated even a little bit like a bad guy, particularly when he gives the film its title by presenting his boss with an extravagant pen inlaid with mammoth ivory.

There's some anti-globalism sentiment to be found here, without a doubt, but it is mostly implicit and unimportant to the narrative drive; it's to be found in quasi-subtle touches like the contrast between Jackie's overstuffed bedroom with the appalling want faced by Gloria's two boys. But Moodysson's intentions aren't nearly that activist. The chief theme of Mammoth is not ultimately one of moral behavior in a global world, but of being true to family and loved ones when that is not the easy or obvious thing to do. A strictly anti-globalist film would present Gloria as a saintly martyr to the white American demand for cheap labor, but in a very real sense, she's in the wrong every bit as much as Leo (whose business that he hates takes him on business trips often) or Ellen (whose job as an emergency room surgeon means that she only sees Jackie a few minutes out of every day). All three of these adults are doing what they think is going to create the best life for their children, while failing to appreciate that being their to give love is a more lasting and vital thing than being able to provide toys or a nice house. SPOILER coming up quick, it is noteworthy that Leo and Gloria have the same epiphany at the same time, and in both cases it is presented as absolutely good: Leo will have to settle for $42 million instead of $45 million, but for Gloria the monetary sacrifice is much more profound; yet it is the right sacrifice to make.

Throughout all of this, mind you, Moodysson is not attempting to present his characters as blinded people who need a good lesson: he is at all points quite generous towards them, and much likelier to sympathise with their suffering than judge their failings. And this above everything else is what separates Mammoth from Babel: he doesn't suggest that anyone needs to learn a lesson, because they're not bad people, they're trying really hard to what's right. At some point, we all figure out that we're just not quite doing that in the most sensible way, and that's a discovery that happens over and over again, for a number of different reasons.

All that said, the film suffers from by my count two significant flaws: first, the whole matter of Leo and Cookie has no real bearing on the rest of the film, other than to make Leo seem like a bit of a dick, and just stretches out the running time. Second, Marcel Zyskind's cinematography is frustratingly glossy and friendly, and certainly the single element of Mammoth where it's easiest to see that Moodysson is, indeed, tailoring his film to Americans a bit more than is tasteful. Neither of these things takes away from all the wonderful bits of character study that the film gets right, but they do hobble Mammoth as a whole, and the cinematography thing really does point out how much more middle-of-the-road the film is, even if successful, than Moodysson's previous output.