"Mother is the name for God on the lips and hearts of all children,” says Eric Draven (Brandon Lee) in The Crow, quoting William Makepeace Thackeray on the sanctity of motherhood. Throughout all eras and genres of cinema, mothers have taken on a variety of shades, from reluctant parent (Baby Boom) to fierce protector (Almost Famous) to desperate (A Woman Under the Influence) to unhinged (Mommie Dearest). What’s interesting about the multitude of movie moms out there is that not one of them resembles the woman who raised me, yet, somehow, their stories still remind me of our life together. While my Mother has played a variety of roles in my life – from caretaker and teacher to supporter and confidant – these matriarchs of cinema contain only shadows of the woman I call Mom. It’s in those shadows and the small familiarities that I find her, carrying my heart back home.
Movies about moms have been pulling at our heartstrings since Bambi (still not over it). Although, thankfully, some have taken a more comedic approach to the relationship between mother and child. In Back to the Future and Albert Brooks’ Mother (starring the late, great Debbie Reynolds), we’re asked to consider the crazy notion that our moms had lives of their own before we came along. Whatever, Mom! Movies like Waitress propose that not all first-time mothers are bursting with joy over their baby’s impending arrival. Making light of the burdens of motherhood can be refreshing, but, most of all, these comedic takes remind us that mom is only human, and that, once upon a time, she had plans and dreams of her own.
Sacrifice and selflessness are often associated with motherhood. However, in the quintessential tearjerkers, Terms of Endearment and Steel Magnolias, Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field portray tough love mamas, unwavering in their belief that being mom means being right. Sentimental looks at the beautifully complex relationship between mothers and daughters, these powerful portraits of love and loss will have you dialing mom before the credits roll. On the flip-side, films like Stepmom and The Family Stone deal with loss from another angle, which is sure to ruin your day. And if you still feel you haven’t shed enough tears there’s always Lady Bird, which recently climbed up the ranks on the must-see mother-daughter list. Sad but insightful, these films emphasize the importance of appreciating the people we love, even those who make it difficult, before it’s too late.
Speaking of difficult, some of the messiest relationships in cinema have contributed to the most memorable matriarchs. Sure, every mother wants the best for their kids, but they may not always have the best approach. Portraying two notoriously flawed characters, Cher brings a cool rebellion to her roles as Rusty Dennis in Mask and Mrs. Flax in Mermaids. Combined with pure devotion she brings a brilliance to the role of the unconventional mom. Xavier Dolan takes the unconventional and complicated to another level in the volatile mother-son relationships of I Killed my Mother and Mommy. While Lynne Ramsay's We Need to Talk about Kevin dives headfirst into the unfathomable and turbulent depths of detachment separating a mother (Tilda Swinton) from her son (Ezra Miller). Of course, horror has provided the most monstrous matriarchs. Even bathed in blood and gore, they suggest that mother knows best – and one can’t really argue the fact that Carrie White would’ve been much better off had she only listened to her mother and skipped the prom. These movies recognize the extreme pressures of motherhood and, while there may be no such thing as the perfect mom, love, loyalty, and devotion are the ties that bind.
One of the first and most important relationships we encounter in life is with our mother. Despite how that relationship may evolve as we grow older, she remains an undefinable and irreplaceable presence in our life. Cinema recognizes the sanctity of motherhood and continues its attempt to capture it in all its multitudes. Still, there’s never quite enough time or detail to capture the depths of motherhood on film. So much that goes on behind the scenes and in the hearts of mothers will remain only sketches on screen. Across all genres, storylines, and eras, we’ll continue to catch glimpses of the women who raised us – in the compassion of Marmee March in Little Women and the protectiveness of Molly Weasley in Harry Potter. While movie moms may only represent fragments of the women we know and love, even those fragments move us beyond measure.