CHARLIZE THERON IN TULLY (2018)
From Juno screenwriter, Diablo Cody, and director, Jason Reitman, Tully boasts a gritty, all-too-real mother in the form of Charlize Theron’s Marlo. She’s got two school-age kids (one of whom appears to be on the autism spectrum) and a newborn to contend with, along with a decent but distant husband who is more dedicated to his gaming console than his struggling wife’s needs. She finds salvation in the form of a free spirited “night nanny” (Mackenzie Davis), but this relationship brings its own complications. The glamorous Theron has dressed down for roles before (Monster, North Country and more), but this is one of her most honest and authentic performances, and she imbues the angry, frustrated, and increasingly desperate Marlo (often seen on the end of a breast pump, and at the mercy of various ailments that plague women who have just given birth) with a wonderfully alive sense of decency and emotional honesty.
LAURIE METCALF LADY BIRD (2017)
The often fraught and deeply complex nature of the relationships between mothers and teenage daughters is caught with rare precision and feeling in the Oscar nominated Lady Bird, the stunning feature writing/directing debut of actress, Greta Gerwig. While Saoirse Ronan’s titular teen – an ambitious, creative dreamer determined to make her mark on the world – is the film’s focus, Laurie Metcalf is just as important as her mother, Marion. A hard-nosed nurse keeping her family together in the face of her husband’s recent unemployment and her daughter’s occasionally outrageous demands, this is a mum so real and recognisable that you practically feel like you’re there at the dinner table. Whether yelling at her daughter or, in one heartbreaking scene, stonewalling her with a fierce lack of compromise, Laurie Metcalf’s Marion McPherson is a real mum, warts and all.
MELISSA LEO IN FROZEN RIVER (2008)
Most famous for her crazy, caterwauling movie mum in The Fighter, the Oscar winning Melissa Leo was just as good in the far less celebrated indie, Frozen River, an impressive debut from writer/director, Courtney Hunt. Leo is wonderfully tough and tender as Ray, who is scraping together a life with her two kids in a run-down trailer park, while working through the grief and anguish that burns away inside you when your gambling-addicted husband takes off with the family savings. Flat-and-busted and totally desperate, Ray eventually goes into business with Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), a Native American and fellow single mother, smuggling illegal immigrants across the titular St. Lawrence River. Seeing this ugly exercise in exploitation as her only way out, Ray is a truly tragic figure, and Frozen River is a tough-minded paean to mothers who are so often pushed right to the edge.
CATALINA SANDINO MARINO IN “LOIN DU 16E” (PARIS JE T’AIME) (2006)
As far as anthology films go, Paris Je T’Aime – which features wildly disparate shorts connected only by their eponymous location – is a very solid affair, featuring far more hits than misses. One of the undoubted highlights is Daniela Thomas and Walter Salles’ “Loin Du 16e” – five minutes of exquisite sadness that would mark any but the hardest of hearts. The film boasts a wonderfully soulful performance from Catalina Sandino Marino (unforgettable in the excellent Maria Full Of Grace) as Ana, a young immigrant mother who leaves her own baby in daycare so she can work as a housekeeper and babysitter for a wealthy family. Movingly, she sings the same Spanish lullaby (“Que Linda Manita”) to both babies to stop them from crying. Saying more about class, inequality, and the sacrifices that so many mothers make in five minutes than most films could say in ninety, “Loin Du 16e” is a low-key masterwork.
ESSIE DAVIS IN THE BABADOOK (2014)
Yes, it’s a horror film, but the justifiably praised The Babadook also features one of the most unusual depictions of a flawed, struggling mother that you’ll ever see. While there is a monster in her house, Essie Davis’ Amelia is the most arresting figure in the film. Working in a depressing nursing home, Amelia has little light in her life. She is also a single mother having a hard time loving her child. Grieving the loss of her husband, and twisted by the unintentional but pivotal role that her then unborn son played in his father’s death, Amelia occasionally recoils from the touch of her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), and often looks at him with feelings much more complicated than love in her eyes. The subject of a mother struggling to love her child is close to being a back-in-the-closet taboo, and it’s a dark-hued twist of irony that finds such a theme driving a horror film involving a literary bogeyman with talons for hands and a cracked, horrifying voice straight from hell.
NONI HAZLEHURST IN FRAN (1985)
Though it’s easy to celebrate mothers as perfect, many mums also make very, very bad decisions that can result in soul crushing anguish for both themselves and those around them. This delicate, polarising theme is beautifully explored in the 1985 Australian drama, Fran, impressively written and directed by Glenda Hambly, who very sadly has never directed another feature film. Aussie stalwart, Noni Hazlehurst, is an absolute force of nature in the title role of a mother whose own hardscrabble childhood ends ups negatively impacting her own kids. Desperate for the love and affection that she has long been deprived of, the perennially unfaithful Fran is eventually abandoned by her violent, angry husband, and then leaves her children with her best friend so can take up with a new man. Hazlehurst’s stunningly performed Fran is so far from perfect that the film is often difficult to watch, but this little jewel of a drama (which is ripe for rediscovery) is a brilliant depiction of a mum without all the answers.
TONI COLLETTE IN GLASSLAND (2014)
The brilliant Toni Collette has a whole host of fascinatingly flawed and/or all-too-real on-screen mothers to her credit (Mental, The Black Balloon, The Sixth Sense, About A Boy, Little Miss Sunshine and many more), and one of the most arresting can be found in the little seen Irish indie, Glassland. In this uncompromising drama, Collette commandingly takes on the supporting role of Jean, a broken down drunk careening quickly and horribly into oblivion. “Addiction is so sad, but I didn’t want Jean to feel like a sad sack,” Collette told FilmInk. “I wanted her to have a feisty sense of energy.” Much more than just a lost cause, Jean’s voluble personality constantly puts her in the thoughts of her adult son, John (Jack Reynor), an inherently decent taxi driver who drifts into increasingly criminal activity in order to meet his mother’s growing needs and demands. Glassland is a powerful reminder of the damage that addiction can do to a family, and also that the parent-child relationship can be just as difficult in adulthood as it is in infancy.
VIOLA DAVIS IN FENCES (2015)
The figure of the mother in African-American culture is a towering and powerful one, so indelible that it’s difficult to express cinematically without dipping into cliché. Though often seen battling the external forces of racism while struggling to maintain a happy home life in the face of violence and economic difficulty, the African-American mother is rarely at the centre of the story, but she’s usually a powerful part of it, and that’s again the case with Fences. Based upon August Wilson’s award winning stage play, the film’s focus is on the ongoing battle between African-American teenage football prodigy, Corey (Jovan Adepo), and his father, Troy (Denzel Washington, who also directs), a one-time baseball hopeful jealous of the opportunities being afforded his son. While their egotistical blow-outs drive the film, wife and mother, Rose (Viola Davis scored a well-deserved Oscar for her bravura work here), tries to hold it all together, all while quietly fighting through the pain of watching her family implode.
KATHY BURKE IN NIL BY MOUTH (1997)
Though the character of Ray Winstone’s big, bullish Ray – a South London hard-man who likes to talk it big and drink it even bigger – towers over Gary Oldman’s sole directorial effort, Nil By Mouth, the film’s beating heart is his wife, Valerie (Kathy Burke). Swaggering and charismatic, Ray is also a violent, repulsive bully, and when he beats the big-hearted Valerie to within an inch of her life when he stupidly suspects that she might be having an affair (and then nearly bites off her junky brother’s nose!), the audience feels every blow. Domestic violence is the scourge of all developed societies, and in the grimly authentic Nil By Mouth, Kathy Burke – a noted comic performer who gives a performance of phenomenal power and resolve here – gives it an all-too-human face, fighting to keep her family stitched together even while its ferocious patriarch tries to rip it all apart.
ELLEN BURSTYN IN ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1974)
1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was a true out-of-the-box assignment for quintessential New Yorker, Martin Scorsese. Prior to this warm, funny tale of gritty Middle American widow, Alice Wyatt (the brilliant Ellen Burstyn in an Oscar winning turn), Scorsese had made the rough and ready Mean Streets and Boxcar Bertha. He was strictly a director for hire here, brought in by big star Burstyn, then hot off The Exorcist. Despite his lack of personal connection to the material, the film is one of Scorsese’s best: it’s funny, rich with emotion and filled with great characters (Diane Ladd is brilliant as a sassy waitress, Kris Kristofferson is gruffly charming as Alice’s suitor, and Alfred Lutter is a scream as her pain-in-the-arse son). Inspiring the popular TV series, Alice, the film’s leading character is the epitome of the flawed, authentic, struggling-to-keep-it-together mother, and stands as the blueprint for nearly all the far-from-perfect movie mums that would follow in her trudging but triumphant footsteps.