At a screening I went to recently, one of the biggest laughs came when the lead character, a 58-year-old grieving mother, drilled a small hole into the hand of a dentist. No, not nice. But honestly, he was being inexcusably patronising.
The film was the Oscar-buzzy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the grieving mother was Mildred Hayes, played by Frances McDormand at her finest since Fargo. Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered seven months earlier. Furious at the police’s failure to arrest the killer, she rents three billboards the size of double-decker buses outside her small town, Ebbing, Missouri, to shame the local sheriff (Woody Harrelson) into action. Her signs read: “Raped while dying.” “Still no arrests.” “How come, Chief Willoughby?” Mildred is a mother on a mission.
Everyone has a mum. Films are full of them. The problem is a lack of variety. Movie mothers tend to be monsters (Mommie Dearest, Carrie, Precious, Animal Kingdom), angels (Bambi, The Grapes of Wrath) or just a bit nothing-y (pretty much everything else). That, however, could be changing. While 2017 has been an awful year for women in film in most respects, it has thrown up a riot – or whatever the collective noun for mums ought to be – of complex on-screen mothers.
Top of the pile is Mildred. When In Bruges director Martin McDonagh started writing his firecracker script eight years ago, he couldn’t have predicted the relevance of his storyline about a woman attempting (tragically after the fact) to protect her daughter from a sexual predator. But after a year of women being angry because of men, here comes Mildred striding on to the horizon like an avenging angel lobbing molotov cocktails.
Like a lot of gritty heroines, she is far from perfect. Her moral compass is skewed, and Chief Willoughby is not one of the bad guys. When he says he would do anything to catch her daughter’s killer, you believe him. McDonagh recently told the New York Times that he wanted the character to be flawed. “We didn’t want to do anything to make her more likable or lovable. For once, we don’t have to show the female side or the light side or the nurturing, mothering side.”
Showing the “nurturing, mothering side” in all its complexity is what actor-turned-director Greta Gerwig does in her solo directorial debut Lady Bird (in UK cinemas 23 February), a movie in which a mother lobs molotov cocktails of the emotional variety. The film’s working title was Mothers and Daughters, and it’s loosely based on Gerwig’s teenage years in suburban California, the film stars Saoirse Ronan as 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, with Laurie Metcalf as her tough-love mum Marion. Unlike most coming-of-age stories, which focus on boys, Lady Bird’s central love story is mother-daughter.
Hollywood has always been lacking in epic mother-and-daughter stories. But with “mum” no longer a pejorative term (“mom jeans” = Vogue-approved denim choice), planet film is catching on to the excellent-ness of mothers.
Lady Bird opens with Lady Bird throwing herself out of the passenger seat of a moving car being driven by her mum. Two seconds earlier, the pair are bonding over an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath, silently crying at exactly the same line. But that somehow turns into a blazing row. “You’re infuriating!”
Gerwig doesn’t pull any punches. The relationship is a battlefield. Marion wants the best for Lady Bird, but her anxiety mostly manifests in criticism and irritation. She witheringly tells Lady Bird that she doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting into a prestigious arts university. For Lady Bird, these are the “I hate you” years. With strops and slammed doors, she rejects her mum, while at the same time searching for her approval. My favourite bit of dialogue in a film brimming with brilliant dialogue, goes:
Lady Bird: “Why don’t you like me?”
Marion: “I love you.”
Lady Bird: “But do you like me?”
Gerwig has talked about Marion and Lady Bird being two sides of the same coin. In an interview with Pop Sugar, she described the fraught relationship between teenage girls and their mums: “It’s almost like something chemical happens where you just fight in this way. You’re so similar, and you’re being pulled apart, and I think that makes it more complicated. Because they know that they’re losing you. So there’s this intensity to it that’s unlike anything else.” By the end of the movie, Lady Bird and Marion know each other more deeply than before, taking their first steps into an adult relationship. It’s like 90 minutes of therapy.
How about monstrous moms? This year has certainly been awash with dysfunctional ones. Mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s bizarre film, stars Jennifer Lawrence as, well who, exactly? Mother Nature giving birth to the messiah? It would take five margaritas and a smoke of something behind the bike shed to work out where Mother! sits in cinema’s mothers canon.
The most monstrous mother is yet to come. I, Tonya (in UK cinemas in February) turns the fall of disgraced US Olympic figure skater Tonya Harding into a black comedy. Harding was implicated in 1994 in the knee-capping of her arch skating rival Nancy Kerrigan. Allison Janney is already being talked about for an Oscar for her performance as LaVona Golden, Harding’s pushy stage mom. Golden has been called the nastiest movie mum since Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. She’s a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, throwing-a-knife-at-her-daughter villain. But Janney is on LaVona’s side, as she explained to Vice: “She worked very hard to get herself out of the life she was in. Then she had this daughter with this talent, so every penny she made working as a waitress went to Tonya’s skating. She was going to make sure she rose to the top, despite all the odds, because the skating world did not embrace her.”
One of the most depressing things about reading the allegations of sexual harassment in Hollywood has been the realisation: so this is how (some of) the men in the industry I write about think about women.
Films are meant to allow us to enter into the life of someone else, to help us empathise. But to these men, female lives are meaningless. For them, women are objects. (“Take your clothes off.” “Put this in your mouth.” “I’m going to do this to you.”) Seeing the mothers and daughters in these films feels so important now.
But the cinema matriarch I truly lost my heart to this year was Halley, the 21-year-old single mum played by newcomer Bria Vinaite in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project. If I saw Halley and her six-year-daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) on the bus, I would probably scowl with disapproval. Halley gives Moonee fast food for lunch, giggles when she swears and lets her run rampage. I would judge her.
Maybe not after seeing The Florida Project, which tells a story behind the statistic that in the US, 35% of single-mother families live below the poverty line. Halley and Moonee are among the hidden homeless, renting $30-a-night motels in Florida within a mouse’s whisker of Disney World – “the happiest place on earth”.
If you do the maths, Halley was 15 or 16 when she had Moonee. Now, at 21, she is parenting with no money and no safety net, and yet she loves Moonee with an unwavering, self-sacrificing love. Like angry Mildred in Three Billboards, she is a mother we needed to see in 2017.