Married with child, but N.Y. native still a mommas boy

Azazel Jacobs’ delicate and touching indie feature, “Momma’s Man,” begins, oddly enough, with a goodbye. A visiting adult son bids his mother a poignant, clasping farewell, but it turns out to be premature.

Mikey’s return flight to the West Coast is canceled, and he ends up back on his parents’ Manhattan doorstep. It should be a minor blip, really, but it feeds a bout of procrastination that leads to a bizarre regression and then inertia. In short order, Mikey is ensconced once again with his parents in the object- and memory-crammed flat where he grew up, blocking out thoughts of his perplexed wife and infant in Los Angeles.

Gently comic and quietly unsettling, the altogether winning “Momma’s Man” unfolds at the approximate intersection of Kafka, Freud and Jack Benny. Those names aren’t chosen by accident; an unmistakable Jewish sensibility envelops this family, although it’s never explicitly acknowledged.

Jacobs is too subtle, and too affectionate toward his characters, to stoop to broad clichés, but it’s difficult not to notice that Mom devotes an inordinate amount of time and attention to making sure the men are fed. Meanwhile, when Mikey (a baby-faced Matt Boren) opts to drown his self-pity in drink, the only booze he can find in the house is pale sherry.

Both parents are artists — they’re played by the director’s real-life artist parents, Ken and Flo Jacobs—and they are, shall we say, more adept at nonverbal communication than casual conversation. Their interactions with Mikey fall somewhere between existential comedy and the submerged tensions of “Next Stop, Greenwich Village.”

Rest assured that they recognize Mikey’s malingering in their house as a seriously unhealthy development. But his father lacks the words or the moxie to push Mikey into adulthood, and his overprotective mother will assuredly never cast him out of the house. (That latter characteristic might be the ultimate tip-off that they’re Jewish.)

Jacobs leaves a good deal of the back story between the three main characters in “Momma’s Man” unexplained, cannily inviting us to fill in the blanks and connect the dots. We start imagining what Mikey’s adolescence was like, and we can’t help but conclude that his parents didn’t do a stellar job of preparing him for the outside world.

Their failure is grounded, perhaps, in what generally seems to be a trait of Jews of a certain generation, namely that they forever view their grown children as children, rather than as independent adults.

But there’s no animosity or bitterness or resentment in “Momma’s Man.” The lingering sensation is wistfulness — for dreams not fulfilled, talents not inherited, the road not traveled and, not least, the necessity of growing up and taking responsibility for oneself.

For Mikey, it’s a process of deciding where home is. Is it this eccentric Manhattan apartment where he was raised and formed, with the people who birthed him? Or is it the sparse, unrooted place in California with the family he’s created?

The mysterious, molten heart of the film lies in the relationship between Mikey and his mother. She has a special power in that she’s the only one who physically touches him, provoking the most powerful and cathartic emotions.

Resonant, moving and, yes, unexpectedly mature, “Momma’s Man” is a gentle corrective to the stereotype of suffocating Jewish mothers and rebellious Jewish sons. At the same time, it is a welcome, low-key antidote to the manic Hollywood comedies about boy-men who refuse to grow up.

“Momma’s Man” opens Oct. 24 at the Embarcadero Center Cinema.

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Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.