Mom's the Word

Ten movies for Mother's Day, from saints to sinners.

Mom's the Word

Sunday is Mother’s Day, a greeting-card holiday that’s also an occasion to consider and celebrate the person with whom you had the first and most foundational relationship of your life. Do you have a favorite movie about a mother? Or, to switch it around, do you see your own mother in a movie? It’s okay, it can be “Mommie Dearest” if you want – we process the complexities of love, guilt, appreciation, and separation with whatever cultural objects are closest at hand. Rather than the plaster saints of motherhood seen in movies from “The Grapes of Wrath” to “Forrest Gump,” I’ve always been drawn to models with a few dings on them, who’ve maybe been dealt a lousy hand and are playing it the best they can, which isn’t always the same as good. My favorite movie moms are either flawed but heroic in terms of what they do for their kids, or well-intentioned screwups who remind those who need reminding (*cough* men) of how terrifying motherhood can sometimes seem. Here’s a two-part list to jog some ideas for streaming: Five films about Good Moms and five about Good Bad Moms. Watch one with your own mom, hash out the differences, and – most importantly – listen to her stories.

Good Moms

“20th Century Women” (2016) – This goes to the top of the list if only because it reminds me so much of my own mother, a single working mom who raised a confused teenage boy (along with his marginally less confused sisters) during the 1970s while trying to process the era’s cultural changes while also smoking too many cigarettes while also establishing a benchmark of frazzled, intelligent female independence. Writer-director Mike Mills (“Beginners,” “C’mon C’mon”) gives Annette Bening’s Dorothea Fields snappier dialogue than my own mother generally managed, but isn’t that why we go to movies – to see life stage-managed to be a little better? I still say this is the best actress Oscar that Bening (above, with Lucas Jade Zumann) should have won. (Streaming on Showtime, Kanopy, and Hoopla; for rent on Amazon, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Ben is Back” (2018) – It fell through the cracks amid a spate of similarly titled dramas about fraught sons and freaked-out parents (“Beautiful Boy,” “Boy Erased”), but it’s a raw and surprisingly strong drama of a young drug addict (Lucas Hedges) home for Christmas and a mother (Julia Roberts) who has burned past enablement into a much harder and purer version of maternal love. (Streaming on Hulu; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Herself” (2020) – A modest, empathetic Irish film about a battered wife and mother (Clare Dunn, above) who, unable to find housing in a depressed Dublin, decides to build her own house from scratch. Phyllida Lloyd’s drama is about the community of helping hands that grows around the heroine, but it keeps her relationship with her two young daughters (Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann) as the story’s emotional core. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.)

“If Beale Street Could Talk” (2018) – Regina King (above right) won a supporting Oscar for her portrayal of Sharon, who responds to the news that her teenage daughter (KiKi Layne, center) is pregnant the way you hope a parent always should – with shock quickly replaced by love, strength, and support. King does justice to one of novelist James Baldwin’s finest creations, a bulwark of maternal fortitude. (For rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Room” (2015) – Brie Larson (another Oscar winner) plays a mom raising her young son (Jacob Tremblay, above with Larson) in a room he has never left, the room she has been imprisoned in since she was kidnapped as a teenager. It’s a role that lets an actress pare motherly instinct down to the bone, and it’s especially moving in the early scenes, as “Ma” creates a world for a boy just beginning to understand while simultaneously protecting him from it. (Streaming on Showtime and Kanopy; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

Good Bad Moms

“The Lost Daughter” (2021) – Olivia Colman got most of the attention as a middle-aged woman belatedly (and rather poorly) processing her long-ago abandonment of her daughters, but allow me to point out how very good – how aggravating and understandable and cruel and heartbroken – Jessie Buckley (above) is as the character’s younger self, almost hating her children for making her love them. (Streaming on Netflix.)

“Miss Juneteenth” (2020) – The mother who forces a child to live out the dreams she herself was unable to realize is an old story – cue Mama Rose singing “I had a dreeeam” – but it fits snugly into this excellent debut from writer-director Channing Godfrey Peoples, about a Fort Worth single mom (Nicole Beharie, above left) noodging her reluctant daughter (Alexis Chikaezie, right) to enter and win the title beauty pageant. (Streaming on BET+ and Kanopy; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Ricki and the Flash” (2015) – A much-too-little seen human comedy of wayward moms and hardheaded daughters, this casts Meryl Streep as a Bonnie Raitt-style rocker who ditched her family years back and whose ex-husband (Kevin Kline) reels her back in to deal with a newly-divorced daughter (Streep’s real daughter Mamie Gummer, above left). The final narrative feature from director Jonathan Demme, it’s a loosey-goosey delight. (Streaming on Starz; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Tully” (2018) – “Ricki” was written by Diablo Cody, and so is this sleight-of-hand comedy drama about an exhausted mom – Charlize Theron (above) has never seemed so beaten down – rejuvenated by a new “night nanny” (Mackenzie Davis) who’s almost too good to be true: A Manic Pixie Dream Doula. The cast is magnificent and the ending … well, discuss. (For rent on Amazon, Apple TV, YouTube, and elsewhere.)

“Stella Dallas” (1937) – The mother of all Good Bad Mama movies, with Barbara Stanwyck (above) as a mill-town girl who gets knocked up by the local rich kid and becomes a vulgar embarrassment to her grown daughter (Anne Shirley) before giving her up in one of the great masochistic final shots of classic cinema. It’s a now-dated drama of class barriers in America – the 1990 Bette Midler remake “Stella” doesn’t even make sense – but the peerless Stanwyck (the former Ruby Stevens from Brooklyn) sells it and sells it hard. (Streaming on Amazon Prime Video, Kanopy, and Watch TCM; for rent on Amazon.)

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