In the family drama The Tribes of Palos Verdes, in theaters this week, the warmly maternal actress Jennifer Garner plays a mother from hell. Not that her Sandy Mason is one of those ubiquitous gorgons who have eaten friends and family for dinner since movie time began, from Bette Davis's coldly bullying mater in 1942's Now, Voyager through the ice- queens in two incarnations of The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004), all the way to (coming December 8th!) a wickedly funny and scary Allison Janney as Tonya Harding's monster mom in I, Tonya.
No, Sandy's a more subtly drawn woman, a sharply intelligent but damaged soul starving for affection from her self-involved husband, who's dragged her and their teenaged twins to a wealthy Southern California enclave so as to hone his career as plastic surgeon to the stars.
As a mother, though, Sandy is a disaster. By turns checked-out and needy, she neglects her daughter while desperately binding her son tightly to her as a substitute spouse. Absorbed in her own misery, she fails to see that her family is unraveling until it's too late. We are invited to feel for her plight, but the filmmakers refrain from sugarcoating the wreckage she creates. Not incidentally, I think, it's the daughter who finds the strength to escape, perhaps because she has shed her mother's weakness. From where I sit, however, she may have also inherited her mother's obstinate refusal to get with the program of a world she despises.
On movie screens, if not in life, difficult mothers are getting more nuanced and fun as they grow more complicated and imperfect — and more frequently written for the screen by women or woman-attuned men. Tribes is adapted by Karen Croner from the 1997 novel by Joy Nicholson. Julianne Moore and Annette Bening's lesbian helicopter parents in 2010's The Kids Are All Right were written by Stuart Blumberg and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Bening's demanding but imaginative '70s mom in 20th Century Women last year was written by Mike Mills in homage to his own mother, whom he credits with his artistic success. In Lorene Scafaria's 2015 The Meddler, Susan Sarandon plays an interfering mother who wises up just in time get on with her own life. We laugh, but we also get to honor the fact that these movie moms are as formative as they are formidable.
I grew up with a difficult mother whom I also came to see as a powerful force for good. Not without cause, she found me tough to handle too. My British mum was a practical woman of action who was baffled by having given birth to a dreamy, introspective, sometimes painfully sensitive girl who refused to go out to play because she preferred to read her life away. Praise was not in Mum's vocabulary; neither was the word "sorry;" and though I could have used a little more of both, she was no more than a slightly extreme embodiment of her generation. Having grown up during the Depression in the East End of London (see television's Call the Midwife for a not entirely schmaltzed-up facsimile), she survived the Blitz and spent several years of World War II helping to run a hostel for Jewish child refugees from the Holocaust. She had good reason to agree with post-War Tory prime minster Harold Macmillan that my relatively cosseted upcoming generation never had it so good.
For most of my teens my mother and I clashed constantly, and I will never forget the two weeks (at least that's how long it felt) when she refused to speak to me for an infraction I conveniently can't recall. When Mum lost her temper, the emotional weather got robust in our house. She never said, "I love you," had little psychological vocabulary, and would have had no truck with the self-esteem movement that came to parenting later.
Lacking a college education, Mum understood instinctively that the road to self-confidence lay through competence. "What's the worst that can happen?" she would say, shrugging, when I balked at trying something new. She was equipping me — or more precisely, nudging me to equip myself — to take life on. Though she did draw the line when a friend and I came home from a 1968 anti-war demonstration toting banners that said Revolution Now! "I'll give you revolution," Mum said. "Put that thing down and get on with the Hoovering."
She could be punishingly direct if she thought I wasn't performing up to snuff. But I knew in my bones that my mother loved me from the homemade desk she assembled and painted white for my school work. I knew it from the way she hovered anxiously over my shoulder while I read the exam results that would get me into one of Britain's top universities, even though she couldn't tell a top university from a vocational tech. I knew it from the way she took me back in when I got divorced, and nudged me into leaving when I moped for longer than she thought necessary. I knew it from her stalwart lack of complaint when I moved from London to Boston for graduate school, and stayed to become an American citizen. I knew it from the way she opened her heart wide to the Chinese baby she thought I adopted too late in life.
Most of all I knew it from the example she set merely by living her life. My mother was never so happy as when she was serving others. Watching her prepare tea and biscuits just as they liked it for each handyman who came to the house I learned that everyone deserves respect regardless of their station in life. We weren't well off, but once a month without fail she gave to charity. She loved her work as a primary school secretary and at a time when most mothers didn't work outside the home, she knew that she would have made a terrible stay-at-home mom. She had the gift of female friendship in spades: "Hold onto your girlfriends," she'd say. "They'll get you through it all."She was a good woman and, in her bracing way, a terrific role model. I just didn't know it in the years when we were fighting.
Which is why I got such a kick out of the combustible mother-daughter chemistry between Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig's beautifully observed feature debut Lady Bird, a coming of age dramedy with a cockeyed love letter to her home town of Sacramento tucked inside. Arty, brainy, theatrical, magenta-haired Lady Bird (not her real name) is finishing up at her Catholic high school and can't wait to get out of town and away from the mother she thinks of as square, provincial, and controlling. She's not wrong: Marian has an acid tongue and her idea of encouragement translates as, "With your work ethic you should go to City College and then to jail" and "That's something rich people do. We're not rich people." The two mix it up endlessly as Lady Bird traverses the ups and downs of love and friendship on her way out the door.
Closely bonded with her sweetly passive father, Lady Bird fails to see what everyone else around her sees on a daily basis. That Marion (whose own mother, Lady Bird learns, was more Joan Crawford than Greer Garson) works double shifts to keep the family afloat; that along with her punctilious insistence on order and common sense she is kind, protective and generous to colleagues, to her adopted Latino son and his live-in girlfriend, to her fitfully employed husband — and, in between sallies, to the daughter who is blind to the fact that her nemesis is the one from whom she gets the moxie and mettle that will carry her to a more exciting life than the one her mother has enjoyed.
In retrospect, I wouldn't trade my fierce Bette Davis mother for a Greer Garson model. Though I doubt she'd have stood for me calling myself Lady Bird.