Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Or, to modify this classic maxim to fit Rosalyn Rosen’s gritty psychological drama, “Why is the Dog Howlin’, Momma?,” is Bubba (Todd Lowe) a psychotic, possibly dangerous recluse because he’s afflicted with bi-polar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, or is he afflicted with bi-polar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia because he was raped by his father when he was six years old? Tracked down by his family, Bubba wants only to be left alone to pursue his nascent writing career and carry on conversations with an imaginary Bukowski. Yet, Momma (Jo Harvey Allen) will have none of it. Knocking nervously on his door under a maternal white flag, she enters Bubba’s disturbing domicile and attempts to pacify him with a healthy dose of the Good Word. Instead, Bubba engages his clueless mother in a tense war of words; a verbal sword fight that’s as pointed and heated as it is ultimately revealing.
The best part about “Why is the Dog Howlin’, Momma?” is that you’re never really certain who’s telling the truth. Momma, claiming the sexual abuse is a figment of Bubba’s mental condition, clings to the medical diagnosis as stubbornly as she does her Bible, while her son is just as certain that being raped is what screwed him up royally…and that she knew about it and did nothing to stop it. Rosen makes this intense and claustrophobic drama even more so by confining it within the cramped walls of a seedy hotel room. The bleached, yellow tinge pervading the film’s image also adds to the necessary visual discomfort and subtly reinforces the jaundiced nature of this familial relationship. Lowe is excellent here as the aggressive victim, while Allen, although a bit theatrical, holds her own in a thankless role totally devoid of sympathy. “Why is the Dog Howlin’, Momma?” is less about figuring out who did what to whom and when, as it is about exploring the lasting tragic results of family values gone terribly awry. It doesn’t really matter what caused Bubba’s condition, the chicken or the egg, because the result remains the same.