Our monthly retrospective comes a little earlier this month, and it’s for good reason. Today is Mother’s Day and we look back at a number of classic films and arthouse favorites that have a mother as a prominent character and/or explore themes related to motherhood. To any mother reading this column, Happy Mother’s Day!
Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
By Kevin Jones
Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing is about every parent’s nightmare. After coming to pick up her daughter Bunny from school, Ann Lake (Carol Lynley) discovers she is missing. Worse, as the investigation proceeds, Superintendent Newhouse (Laurence Olivier) starts to question if Bunny ever existed. It is as though the world has turned into Ann’s personal hell. Her time at home is spent wondering where Bunny could be, imagining all of the worst outcomes, and finding ways to prove she is real. Yet, through it all, Ann never gives up hope. She never doubts that Bunny is out there. Her fears may get the best of her sometimes, but she channels it into searching. No matter the doubt of the Superintendent or the barriers put in her way by the school, Ann barrels through them all to find her daughter.
Though Bunny Lake Is Missing is more focused on the suspense and terror of the situation, the motherly instinct of Ann is ever-present. One can see her mind constantly working, trying to think of where Bunny could be or who could take her. She flips between searching and blaming herself, wondering how she could ever think of leaving her alone. Bunny is her world. As Preminger lays out the mystery, it becomes clear just how much Bunny dominates Ann’s life. That morning, Ann bought her a gift. The day before, she sent her doll to be repaired. All week, she stayed inside because Bunny was sick. As the film nears the climax, there is no danger Ann will not put herself in to save Bunny. The motherly determination and sacrifice that Ann displays is crucial to the film. It is the emotional center of Bunny Lake Is Missing, while also being an encapsulation of what a mother can provide. Through the worst situation imaginable, Ann remained resolute and focused on one thing: protecting Bunny.
The Effect on Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds (1972)
By Matt Schlee
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds is not a conventional film about motherhood. It does not tell the story of a sweet and loving family where everything is perfect in the end. It is a film which details struggle and often emotional abuse. The film centers around a family of three women: Beatrice (Joanne Woodward) and her two daughters Ruth (Roberta Wallach) and Matilda (Nell Potts). Beatrice is unstable and often lashes out at her daughters for no clear reason. She seems drawn to destroying the things that they love under the guise of parenting. Ruth is the rebellious extrovert of the family where Matilda is a quite, but brilliant young lady whose science fair project drives key elements of the film’s plot and lends the film its unusual title.
While The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds may not be ideal Mother’s Day viewing for those who grew up with good relationships with their moms, it is a genuine and profoundly human tale which will be relatable to anyone who struggled with a parent who just didn’t have the capacity to love them the right way. We aren’t led to believe that Beatrice hates her kids or that she is rooting against them. Instead we see a women who is deeply troubled and who can not find it in her to express motherly love the way that one should. It is an intimate and simple, but moving, film that explores a difficult family dynamic.
Mother and Son (1997)
By Alex Sitaras
In all likelihood, Mother and Son is the most somber film as part of this retrospective. The film, directed by Russian slow cinema auteur Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark), depicts the final day of a mother’s life. Her son acts as her caretaker and the closeness between the two is evident from the first frame. Sokurov offers little in terms of exposition, and throughout the course of the film we may invent stories about the pair’s lives as our means to interpret the bond shared between them. An ample time reserved for each cut allows our imagination to travel a little, but also to take in the surroundings. Sokurov chooses to employ an earthly color palette and each frame takes on a painterly appearance. As the camera lingers, the small house and surrounding forest feel almost as if enchanted and otherworldly, a fitting comparison given that mortality and the passing from life to death is at the very center of Mother and Son.
The Others (2001)
By Ben McDonald
Nicole Kidman pretty much delivers a career-best performance in everything she appears in, and her role as 1940s helicopter parent Grace Stewart in The Others is no exception. Alejandro Amenábar’s understated ghost story may not be the first film that jumps to mind when thinking of memorable cinematic mothers, but it nevertheless contains a remarkably compelling maternal presence at its core. Grace is an overbearing single mother on her two young children, Anne and Nicholas, who ostensibly suffer from a mortal allergy to natural sunlight. Secluded from the world in a fog-enveloped Victorian mansion, Grace occupies her children’s hours with homeschooling and scripture, maintaining a strict regimen and discipline for her household. As the film unfolds, disturbing but almost completely unseen spiritual presences begin to make themselves known to the family, first to the children and then to Grace.
Much of the creepy satisfaction of The Others predictably derives from Nicole Kidman’s hypnotically expressive performance. Put under strain by the stark irrationality of her situation, Kidman’s characteristically cold and composed persona deteriorates into hysterical terror as her children remain insistent that foreign presences reside in the house. Amenábar’s palpably candle-lit atmosphere and cleverly chilling scares bring out the best of Kidman’s acting ability, allowing her the breathing room to truly shine in some of the scariest moments of 21st century horror. The tragic complexity of Grace’s character- especially as a mother- will not dawn on a first-time viewer until the film’s twist ending, but regardless Nicole Kidman has never been more elegantly watchable.
By Ian Floodgate
Changeling is based upon true life events regarding the 1928 Wineville Chicken Coop Murders, where a series of young boys were abducted and killed. Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) becomes a victim of this scandal when her son disappears. After several agonizing months have passed, Christine is told that her son has been found, but when she sees the boy that has been found she instantly realises that it is not her son. Despite her feelings, Christine is persuaded by the police to take the boy in; however, she is never able to accept a stranger that is not her son, and ends up challenging the police because they won’t accept what she is telling them since they do not want to admit their mistake and be the subject of bad press.
The journey Jolie goes on as Christine Collins is gripping. From the very start of Changeling, she believably displays a devoted mother who is then forced to persistently fight against the law enforcement’s injustice because she has not been reunited with her maternal son. The audience empathizes with Christine and shares her frustrations as she never gives up on finding her son. Changeling shows how strong a mother’s pride is, even against a corrupt and conceited system.
By Ben McDonald
True to its title, Xavier Dolan’s excellent 2014 film Mommy is a rewardingly dense observational study on parenthood. Transpiring in a distant future where a fictional Canadian law grants parents the ability to commit troubled children over to the state, Mommy follows the struggle of single mother Diane “Die” Després (Anne Dorval) to raise her violently ADHD child Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Dolan’s attempt to capture their complicated relationship falls somewhere in the realm of social realism, yet he presents their story with a deep intimacy through a formalistic camera and eccentric soundtrack. Imprisoning its characters (and audience) in a suffocating 1:1 box for the vast majority of the film, Mommy has an alluring electric energy running through its veins at every moment. Since its visual canvas is so rigidly constrained, each and every frame has a tight articulacy and emotional purpose.
Paired with memorably unpredictable musical selections, Mommy captures the conflicting magic and toxicity of Die and Steve’s relationship. It’s clear that they both love each other, but it’s not hard to deduce that she’s a horrible parent. She allows Steve to smoke and drink, and largely fails to impose any sense of household discipline. And yet, Dolan never judges, and furthermore invites the audience to join and live with his characters rather than blame them for their own fates. There’s something fundamentally cinematic about forcing an audience to live in the shoes of people they wouldn’t think twice about crossing the street to avoid. Xavier Dolan’s profoundly empathetic Mommy may occasionally toe with melodrama, but the lingering feelings of joy and melancholy it imparts leave an impression that truly lasts for weeks after viewing.