There’s no shortage of estimable Dads in movies, and it might just be that the gendered expectations of fathers are more easily translated into narrative arcs: The emotionally crippled father who reveals a moment of vulnerability, often brought on by pride, will never fail to hit me where it swells: Chris Cooper in October Sky or the father in Billy Elliot, to name a couple. Cinema is also littered with the instructive and protective fathers who impart moral and emotional wisdom (Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird stands above them all), and there’s a vast sea of fathers celebrated because they get choked up when they have to come to terms with the arrival of their daughters’ adulthood (see Steve Martin in every movie in which he plays a father).
But mothers in films are a different matter. Nuanced, emotionally complex moms are well represented in television — Jason Katims owns that corner of the market right now with Connie Britton in “Friday Night Lights” and four well-rounded, interesting mothers in “Parenthood.” Sela Ward got it in “Once and Again,” Julie Bowen hits the occasional true note in “Modern Family” and Phylicia Rashad in “The Cosby Show” and even Roseanne Barr in “Roseanne” conveyed a lot of the reality of what it means to be a mother in their respective sitcoms.
Mothers in film, however, are a different matter. If you think there’s a shortage of kick-ass female action heroines in cinema, three-dimensional, complex mothers are in even shorter supply. Mothers in film are typically reduced to one note: Loving, grieving, anguished, controlling, or evil. Working mother movies almost always focus on the working aspects while mothers in romantic comedies are typically reduced to Jewish stereotypes (even if they’re not Jewish): “When are you going to find a nice man; when am I going to get grandkids; you’re so skinny, let me make you a plate.” In movies, mothers are even more tied into gender stereotypes than the typical female role; It’s a double-whammy of female and mother caricatures. It’s no wonder that the go-to-movie for some Moms is Step Mom, about a young step-mom trying to connect with her step-children while their mother is dying of cancer. How’s that for uplifting? It’s superficial, but at least it makes an attempt to examine what it means to be a mother and gives some mothers something with which to relate (and Susan Sarandon does give a remarkable performance).
But how many movies really explore motherhood? How many well-rounded, nuanced mothers can you name in film? Look around the Internet at all the Best Movie Moms lists. They’re well represented by hot moms (Kate Winslet in Little Children); funny moms (Holly Hunter in Raising Arizona and … Holly Hunter in The Incredibles), kick-ass moms (Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Ellen Ripley in Aliens), and evil, cruel mothers (Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest, Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom), but how many movie moms really capture the reality of what it is to be a Mom in a way that other mothers can identify?
There are those exceptional cases. Frances McDormand in Almost Famous quickly comes to mind: She had a complicated relationship with her daughter; she was worrisome and overprotective, but ultimately loving and affectionate. She let her 15-year-old son out into the world, but kept a watchful eye on him. When it came time, she had his back, but let him give the speech. She afforded her son an immense amount of trust and responsibility, and it tore her up inside. This, I imagine, is what it is to be a Mom.
Patricia Clarkson in Easy A is another good example: She, along with Stanley Tucci, provide a wealth of wry humor. But she also played the best friend role to her daughter. She showed a respectful amount of concern, enough to let her daughter know she cared, but she let her daughter arrive at her own decisions. And she also revealed that she, too, once had a life — a promiscuous one — beyond being a mother, which gave her an extra dimension.
Toni Collete in Little Miss Sunshine was great as a dramedy version of Clark Griswold, just trying to keep the family together even as the dynamic frayed her nerves. I didn’t much care for The Blindside or Sandra Bullock’s performance, but it was nice to see but she did get a lot of things right about being a Southern Mom.
I have a lot of resentment toward that character, however, because I thought she was a less successful version of “Friday Night Lights’” Tami Taylor, who is inarguably the best mother in either film or television history. But then again, she had five seasons and 80 or so episodes to build that character. Amy Ryan in Win Win, on the other hand, had an hour and a half, and no character in recent memory best captured in film the essence of being a mother. She was equal parts Tami Taylor and Elaine Miller. She was nurturing and protective, instructive without being judgmental, funny in an honest way, and right without being morally superior. She was not just a real mother, she was a real person (right down to the JBJ tattoo) and — short of taking down a steel robot from the future — stands as the best example of a mother in film that I can imagine.
But Amy Ryan’s character is the rarity in cinema. This Mother’s Day, Moms still have little to choose from if they’re seeking out their own movie stand-ins. Good mothers are too often taken for granted, both in reality and in film. The actions of great mothers are dismissed, chalked up to maternal instinct, the natural order of things. Fathers have it easy: Show up for dinner, build the bicycle on Christmas Eve, and shed a tear at graduation or a wedding, and we are lauded as excellent Dads. Meanwhile too many great mothers go unnoticed, unappreciated for their ability to balance work and motherhood (say nothing even of being their roles as wife) or even sometimes taking the even more challenging role as full-time mother (as a part-time stay-at-home Dad, I can attest to how an extended parenting role can be equally rewarding and brain addling). I hate to resort to the platitudes about appreciating moms more than just one day a year. But you should. And on Mother’s Day, you should do her one better. Give her the Ron Swanson treatment: An entire day to herself. Just whatever you do, give her more respect than the mothers in most films deserve.