Instructions For This Listicle:
Step one: Go see Lady Bird. Just do it. You won’t regret it. You might wonder why you haven’t seen more mother/daughter movies like this. And the early 2000s setting combined with its compassionate view of humanity might feel like science fiction after spending 2017 binging documentaries like Handmaid’s Tale. But you won’t regret it.
Director Greta Gerwig has said she wanted to give the relationship between teenage Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), the same level attention usually reserved for romances. And she’s right that it’s a rich but not terribly popular relationship to explore.
Step two: Fume at the injustice that there so many more oedipal tales and coming-of-age stories about boys. Try to think of the mothers you’ve seen on screen. Realize they are mostly divided into two categories: Good/Self Sacrificing/Noble Mothers and Bad Mothers (At this point you might be tempted to google “that Bad Moms movie.” Don’t.)
Step three: You’re ready for the list! Read it and watch (or rewatch) a few. There are no Good or Bad moms or daughters here. I’m interested in stories of whole, messy, contradictory people figuring out what they mean to each other.
Thanksgiving Bonus: These movies and series can also provide a good way to spend time with your family, or avoid talking to your family, or stand in for missing family, or confirm your decision that not being with family is fine, during the holidays.
One: Akeelah and the Bee (2006)
11-year-old Akeelah (Keke Palmer) is a gifted speller, with a real chance at winning the national spelling bee. Her mother, Tanya (Angela Bassett), thinks it’s a distraction from the big picture goals of doing well in school and getting out of South Central LA.
Are there clichés? Sure, there are. Is it so aggressively uplifting you need weights in your pockets to sit through it? Yup. Is it still a good movie? Watch it and find out.
Bassett says she based Tanya on her own mother; “She was a single parent, my sister and I growing up in the housing projects, so she put down certain edicts; and it seemed strong at the time, you know, or she cut out every extra-curricular, she cut out all the fun until you did what was your job and that was to get your studies.” The truth of that character, and her relationship with her precocious daughter, shines through.
Two: Coraline (2009)
Coraline, also 11, lonely and bored in a new house and town, feels neglected by her stressed out parents. After mom bears the brunt of her dissatisfaction, Coraline is seduced into an alternate universe where her Other Mother is always there for her, baking, playing games, buying her gifts. Which turns out to be less awesome than she thought it would be.
On the surface this could seem like a typical Bad Mother story. Mainly because the Other Mother is literally a soul-sucking spider monster. But I think it’s really about reconciling the flawed reality of our parents with the ideal we want them to be. (PS the movie is visually lovely, but the book is better).
Three: One Day at a Time (1975 – 1984, 2017-)
The 70s were a topsy-turvy time for TV. Networks were scrambling to figure out how to be relevant to younger, hipper markets. How could they appeal to teens and women’s libbers while still selling cleaning products and deodorant?
Enter Bonnie Franklin, Mackenzie Phillips, and Valerie Bertinelli in the quintessential sitcom about a single mom and her spirited daughters. This was a staple of my early childhood, but I was too young to understand any of it. So I just re-watched a little bit, and here’s what I can tell you: There is some surprisingly sharp writing. The clothes are AMAZING. Valerie Bertinelli’s hair deserves its own cast credit. Schneider is super creepy – like breaking and entering predator creepy. And a lot of the jokes don’t hold up (men buying lipstick?! Gross!).
If you haven’t watched the Netflix reboot, it’s more au courant and has Rita Moreno, who is basically a deity and we should all give thanks anytime she graces us with her presence. Unfortunately, my sensibilities have changed since the 80s, and I can no longer watch shows with a live studio audience or canned laughter (that’s why AbFab isn’t on this list, actually). But if that doesn’t bother you, this is a good one.
Four: Mermaids (1990)
Cher is the mom and Winona Ryder is the daugher. What else do you need to know?
Five: Gas, Food, Lodging (1992)
This Allison Anders film is seriously under appreciated. It’s another single mom trying to raise two very different daughters. This time the mother is a waitress in a small town in New Mexico. The story is told from the perspective of 15-ish-year-old Shade (Fairuza Balk). When I saw this in 1993, all of the relationships seemed achingly real to me. But maybe it was just that Shade was the old movie obsessed, vintage clothes wearing “good daughter” who shared a room in their tiny trailer with her older sister, Trudi (Ione Skye), who was more “wild” and dropped out of high school and then left town…. Sooo, yeah, maybe there were one or two things there I could relate to.
I rewatched it a couple of years ago, and aside from one scene involving Olivia Newton John that feels like forced wackiness, it holds up as a lovely portrait of small town, working class women’s relationships.
Six: Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)
Despite what Elise and I wrote about our Very Gilmore Halloween, I have seriously mixed feelings about this show. It’s so damn charming and well-written and full of great performances (Kelly Bishop is a national treasure). And it’s so focused on dynamics between women. But…the Loreleis are such brats! And they’re so rich, and such brats about it, that it’s sometimes hard to care about their problems. And the whole thing with their eating massive amounts of junk food while still being conspicuously thin irritates me. And Sookie and Lane are such good friends – way better friends than the Loreleis deserve…Sorry…I guess the reboot brought up feelings I haven’t resolved. It’s still a really good show.
Seven: Real Women Have Curves (2002)
The summer after her senior year, America Ferrera wants to go to college. Her conservative mother wants her to stay home and get married. Both characters are realistically maddening and stubborn. And the frustration over loving someone so much and still seeing the world differently is palpable.
Eight: My Mad Fat Diary (2013-2015)
I’m something of a connoisseur of teen melodramas, so when I tell you that this is The Best One, it behooves you to pay attention. Comparisons to Skins and InBetweeners miss the whole point of the show.
It’s based on Rae Earl’s memoir about being a teenager, smart, mentally ill, and fat all at the same time. Sharon Rooney is mesmerizing as the fictionalized Rae. The story is more about Rae’s friendships, but her relationship with her mother, Linda (Claire Rushbrook), is painful and funny. In the first episodes, seen through Rae’s eyes, her mother is a bit of a selfish caricature. But as Rae grows up, we see Linda trying to figure out how to help an especially challenging daughter become an adult who can deal with the world’s endless shitstorms, while still moving on in her own life.
Also, the show is set in working-class, suburban Lincolnshire in the mid-1990s and has a brilliant soundtrack. You can watch it Hulu.
Nine: Lady Dynamite (2016 -)
This is Maria Bamford’s hallucinatory, loosely autobiographical Netflix comedy. The best parts, in my opinion, are the flashbacks to Maria’s teenage years in Duluth. Teenage Maria is played by middle-aged Maria, which works so much better than having a younger actress play the role. Mary Kay Place as Maria’s mom strikes just the right balance of Minnesota smiling stoicism combined with normalness so normal it’s eccentricity. Together they cope with Maria’s bipolar disorder, and other growing up stuff.
Ten: Steel Magnolias (1989)
Full disclosure: I’ve never actually seen this movie. But I’m worried my co-editors will break up with me if I don’t include it. They’re my best friends, but about 1 in 20 interactions involves Elise or Meredith saying something pithy in a Hollywood version of their real Southern accents, and me staring blankly because I didn’t recognize the Steel Magnolias quote.
All I know is it has Julia Roberts, it’s not Terms of Endearment, and Elise and Meredith have watched it a lot.
Eleven: The Joy Luck Club (1993)
Complicated mother/daughter stories are rare enough. Sweeping mother/daughter epics? Is this the only one?
By the way Amy Tan recently talked about her own mother and grandmother on Fresh Air, and it is breathtaking.
Twelve: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002)
The daughter is Sandra Bullock. The Mother is Ellen Burstyn. Maggie Smith wears a funny hat. It mostly takes place in Louisiana. Did I mention my two best friends/Dismantle co-founders are from the South?
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