Mermaids: Winona Ryder and Cher sparkle in underappreciated 1990s coming-of-age gem

The mother-daughter chemistry crackles between the two female leads in this film about growing up, no matter your age

Mermaids is a coming-of-age tale with a difference. Set in small-town America in 1963, it tells the story of the nomadic Flax family: young single mother Rachel (Cher), nine-year-old water-baby Kate (Christina Ricci) and 15-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder), who is grappling with the things teenagers grapple with – identity, sexuality, shoes – as she searches for herself and her place in the world. But in a twist on the genre, Rachel, who was only 16 when she had Charlotte, is inching towards her own enlightenment. Both mother and daughter grow up over the course of the film, because and in spite of each other.

Unapologetic, independent and sexually liberated – qualities rarely seen in women in films set in this era – Rachel packs up their lives and relocates every time she has a breakup. And Rachel has a lot of breakups. By the time they arrive in Eastport, Massachusetts at the film’s commencement, they’ve moved 18 times in 15 years. As opposed to running away from one’s problems, Rachel claims moving is a form of empowerment. “Life is change,” she makes the girls say with her. “Death is dwelling on the past and staying in one place too long.”

But despite Rachel’s overbearing matriarchy, the movie really belongs to Charlotte. Narrated through her droll inner monologue, this is the cringeworthy story of her sexual awakening and quest for selfhood. Obsessed with Catholicism despite one small problem – “Charlotte, we’re Jewish” – she defines herself only in opposition to her mother. Rachel values freedom and spontaneity, Charlotte craves rules and structure; Rachel thrives on change, Charlotte makes every new bedroom look exactly the same; Rachel is promiscuous, Charlotte wants to be a nun. “I know you’re planning a celibate life,” mother taunts child, “But with half my chromosomes that’ll be tough.”

Winona Ryder in pious old-fashioned clothes
Charlotte, torn between pseudo-Catholicism and a raging crush on the hot maintenance guy from the convent up the road. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

While the mother-daughter relationship is the film’s core, both women also navigate romantic relationships, forced to choose between the ideological corners they’ve backed themselves into and following their hearts. Rachel finds a kind, fun man in shoe salesman Lou (Bob Hoskins, in stellar form) but struggles with letting go of her autonomy; and Charlotte is torn between pseudo-Catholicism and her raging crush on the hot maintenance guy from the convent up the road (Michael Schoeffling, in god-awful form). “Please God, don’t let me fall in love and want to do disgusting things,” her inner monologue sounds as she watches him garden. “Dear God, I love the way he throws.”

Despite Rachel dressing as a mermaid for a New Year’s Eve party and Kate’s aquatic fixation (“I wish I could swim forever”), the film’s title has never made complete sense to me. In researching this, I was delighted to learn it is adapted from a 1986 book of the same name and even more delighted to learn there’s a sequel. Although there are no confirmed quotes from the author, Patty Dann, it’s believed she chose “Mermaids” because of the dual child/woman natures of Charlotte and Rachel, Rachel’s elusiveness – always fleeing from men – and for the motif of water, mostly through little mermaid Kate.

I love this movie. I loved it as a kid and I love it now. As a kid, I dreamed of being exactly like Charlotte, already having the Jewish bit covered. I learned to do the signs of the cross and even begged my horrified parents for a crucifix necklace. I also asked incessantly for star-shaped sandwiches and marshmallow kebabs, because Rachel served snacks religiously and that’s another faith I can get behind. Thinking about it now, the fact I saw it as a child raises questions about my parents’ parenting, but it has a PG rating and they’re not here to defend themselves so let’s call it a different time and move on.

Cher in spangly mermaid costume
Cher’s performance was criminally dismissed as average at best, garish at worst. Photograph: Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy

It’s not a flawless piece of cinema. The characters can tend towards caricature, some scenes hover on the border between female sexual empowerment and slut-shaming, and Schoeffling’s performance is terrible, truly terrible.

What really makes Mermaids shine is the chemistry between Ryder and Cher. They feed off each other’s dramatic energy and their comic timing is entirely in sync. But while Ryder’s performance was lauded, Cher’s was criminally dismissed as average at best, garish at worst. Critics of the film at the time bemoaned its soft-touch approach and cartoonish characters – and Mermaids probably could have leaned harder into grit and substance, which would only have enhanced its humour. Cringe-comedy is best when its subjects are a bit silly but also flawed and vulnerable.

But as is, Mermaids is a fun, heartfelt, well-directed film that still holds up pretty damn well 30 years on. The screenplay is poignant and hilarious, the soundtrack banging and (most of) the acting excellent. I still love it and I will die defending Cher’s performance as nothing short of magical, humming The Shoop Shoop Song – which she recorded for the film – and eating finger food shaped like stars.

• Mermaids is available to stream on Stan


Nadine von Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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