A good mom is hard to find in film. I probably don’t need to tell you that the majority of films that feature mothers feature heterosexual white women. But even these on-screen mothers are two-dimensional at best (pick one: loving and anguished or evil and manipulative). So, in honor of my mother’s birthday (and Mother’s Day!) next month, I’ve decided to dedicate my last blog post to moms on the big screen, focusing on mother's who make sacrifices for their children.
The mothers I’ve chosen to examine are: Hana in Wolf Children (dir. Mamoru Hosoda, 2012), Jules and Nic in The Kids are All Right (dir. Lisa Cholodenko, 2010), Alice Hyatt in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (dir. Martin Scorsese, 1974), and Precious’s mother and Precious herself in Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire (dir. Lee Daniels, 2009). I tried to choose films that celebrate mothers who are both diverse and complex, films that challenge ideas of motherhood, and hopefully make us appreciate and understand our mothers a little bit more.
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Hana in Wolf Children is probably the most traditional mother character of all the ones I’ve decided to discuss today, despite the strange premise of the film. Following the death of her werewolf husband, Hana must raise her two werewolf children in the countryside. The story is about her unconditional love for her children, and her relentlessness in trying to make ends meet in order to provide for them. Though some may say that the movie is too idealistic, I think the unconditional kind of love that the film proposes is exactly what makes it so emotionally punching.
This is Hosoda’s ode to motherhood, he wants to show the viewers (through absolutely stunning animation, I might add) the sacrifices that mothers make to raise their children. In the end, we get so emotionally invested in these characters, but there’s no pay off. There is no fanfare, no celebration of her success in raising two very demanding and unusual children, not even a thank you. Instead, it’s just Hana, alone in the mountainside house she worked so hard to build into a home.
On the other side of the spectrum, Jules and Nic in The Kids are All Right are far from being traditional mothers, but they are equally willing to sacrifice for the sake of their family. The film follows a lesbian couple raising two kids they each had from the same sperm donor. The kids find their biological father, Paul, and chaos ensues between the couple when Jules has an affair with him. Moreover, the film does a good job of denying heteronormativity; Paul does not end up connecting with either of his children, and the couple resolves their differences. These mothers too, sacrifice, acting in ways that they do not necessarily want to act, because it is in the best interest of their families.
Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, complicates this idea that being a good mother means sacrifice. Alice follows Alice Hyatt a recent widow who searches across the southwest U.S. to find a better life for both herself and her eleven-year-old son. She gets a temporary job as a waitress in a diner, telling herself that this is a temporary stop in her plan to move to Monterey and pursue her life-long dream of singing. Although she never reaches in Monterey, she ends up pursuing her dreams while staying in Tuscon, where her son has found his niche.
In researching movies for this post, I had difficulty finding films that portrayed black mothers in a positive light. In fact, I had difficult finding films about black motherhood period. It seems ridiculous that there are no films that come to mind with a black mother who isn’t some combination of abusive, poverty-stricken, uneducated, and addicted to drugs. While I think that Precious is revolutionary in the way that it tackles issues of body image, Precious’s relationship with her mother, Mary, isn’t particularly radical (Though Mary’s hatred of her daughter is later revealed to be complex and deeply psychological).
What is refreshing about this film is Precious’s relationship with her own children. Precious really tries to be a good mother, but she doesn’t give up her education to do so. All of Precious’s moments of great motherhood are supplementary (maybe even secondary) to her individual journey in finding a place where she can get the love she knows she deserves. She continues her education and decides to raise all her children by herself. Unlike Hana, Precious is both a mother and a real person; her motherhood is not all that she is, but it is still an important part of her.
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Good mothers are always underappreciated, both in film and in real life. So this mother’s day, I encourage you to sit down with your mother and watch one of these films. More than just entertainment, I think they all propose more complex and nuanced portraits of motherhood than what we’re used to seeing at the movies. Most importantly, I think these films show us the ways in which mothers can be defined and imagined as real people both through and outside of the sacrifices that they make for their children.