The Mother/Daughter Dance
By Jan Lisa Huttner
(First Posted in 2005)
Just in time for Mother’s Day, four wonderful films about the delicate dance between mothers and daughters.
A terrific ensemble cast, anchored by Halle Berry and Jessica Lange, will move you to tears in the heart–wrenching dramaLOSING ISAIAH. Berry plays a crack addict who thinks she’s killed her baby. Bitterness and self-loathing completely consume her, until she finds out that the baby, Isaiah, was actually rescued, and then adopted by a hospital social worker (Lange).
What makes LOSING ISAIAH so special is screenwriter Naomi Foner’s ability to address the multiple biological, cultural, and political complexities of mothering. Isaiah, bright and adorable though his is, is also a handful, and his presence creates friction between Lange and her teenage daughter. Meanwhile Berry has befriended a young boy named Amir who looks to her for the attention his own mother withholds.
Once the legal battle for Isaiah is over, it becomes clear that Isaiah needs both mothers: his birth mother and his adoptive mother. Though their love for him, the two women develop a relationship with each other, with mother/daughter echoes, that is both subtle and deeply touching.
The heroine of Alice Wu’s new film SAVING FACE is a Chinese-American woman named Wilhelmina. “Wil” is a surgical resident at a busy New York hospital, and although her family is extremely proud of her, they keep pushing her to get married and start having babies. They assume the problem is her demanding career, but that’s only part of it; Wil’s also concealing the fact that she’s gay.
Wil’s father died soon after she was born, and her mother has been living in a Chinese enclave in Queens with her own parents ever since. Much to her surprise, Wil learns one day that her mother has secrets of her own. Far from being the quiet, dutiful daughter she appears to be, “Ma” actually has a boyfriend and, at age 48, she’s pregnant again. All the gossip drives Ma from Queens, and she takes refuge in Wil’s tiny Manhattan apartment.
Although it has its poignant moments, SAVING FACE is played mostly for laughs. Veteran actress Joan Chen plays Ma, and newcomer Michelle Krusiec matches her step-by-step as Wil.
In SAVING FACE, mother and daughter come to appreciate one another anew by living together as adults and learning each other’s secrets, but in FREAKY FRIDAY mother and daughter literally trade places. After squabbling in a restaurant, they wake up the next morning trapped in each other’s bodies. The daughter, finding herself in her mother’s body, has to put on a suit and pretend to fit in at work, while her mother, magically restored to a teenager body but still in possession of all her charge cards, goes shopping.
Mary Rodgers wrote the original story as well as the screenplay for the 1976 film version (which starred Barbara Harris as the mother and Jodie Foster as the teen). Screenwriters Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon have updated it for Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan, both of whom are outrageously funny.
Talented young actress Elizabeth Moss plays the title character in VIRGIN, written and directed by Deborah Kampmeier. When the film begins, Jessie is at loose ends. She’s at odds with her family and doesn’t have any close friends. One night she gets drunk at a party, and a boy she knows takes advantage of her. Finding herself pregnant but with no memory of ever having had sex, she is sure that God has chosen her to carry His child.
Feeling for the first time that she holds something of value within herself, Jessie is suddenly capable of seeing meaning in her life and surroundings. In particular, she reaches out to her mother, a confused and sorrowful woman, beautifully played by Robin Wright Penn. In the end, Jessie has a galvanizing effect on those around her, and the community that tried to shame her is redeemed.
The women directors and screenwriters behind these four films are all fascinated by the complexity of the mother/daughter relationship. They look at motherhood with a warm but analytical eye, refusing to simplify by assuming that mothering is just something “natural” or effortless. Although the specifics are always colored by culture and circumstance, the mother/daughter dance is one of life’s fundamentals.
© Jan Lisa Huttner (May-June 2005) – Special for The Woman’s Newspapers. Reposted with permission.