While a lot of movies spend plenty of time exploring the Oedipal angst of men and their mothers, the portrayal of mothers and daughters on film are much slimmer pickings.
The tragic passing of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds has reminded us of how fraught and fertile this ground can be. Without further ado, here are our Ten Memorable Mother & Daughter Movie Relationships:
The Star Wars Movie Universe
Carrie Fisher got us thinking about this list, so that’s where we start. While Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman) “would not condone a course of action that would lead to war”, her Vadar was way off in the romantic stakes and she mistook Anakin’s dark side for adorable brooding for just long enough to conceive a set of twins with him. So, while her relationship issues helped create the evil Sith Lord, Darth Vader, her offspring kind of saved the Galaxy, so we’ll call it a wash. Although Amidala and Leia (Carrie Fisher) didn’t share any screen time, this powerful mother/daughter combination helped to bring the female heroine front and centre long before it was politically correct to do so.
Ricki and the Flash (2015)
Meryl Streep will be making a later appearance in this list (spoiler: it won’t be for ‘Sophie’s Choice’, because she picked the boy instead of her daughter…), but how can this list overlook the real life pairing of Meryl and her daughter Mamie Gummer? Ostensibly about an ageing rocker returning to the family she abandoned, Ricki and the Flash explores the collateral damage of creative ambition and the important relationships that can be overlooked when you are always searching the horizon for something better.
Not Without My Daughter (1991)
While this is more about Betty (Sally Field) escaping to freedom with her daughter than it was about their relationship specifically, the title alone warrants its inclusion. It played on TV a lot in the 90s and while the melodrama had you reaching for the remote, there is something inspiring about the diminutive Sally Field overcoming both a culture that allowed her no rights, and a sea of sand that was way hotter than she was used to from her Gidget days. Field’s portrayal is completely ridiculous, and it earned her a Razzie at the time, but the sentiment of a mother doing ‘whatever it takes’ made it memorable enough. Although, looking back now, it plays more like a propaganda film than anything else.
Juno cops some revisionist rubbishing for the Diablo Cody-ness of its dialogue, but having a pregnant teenager as the lead in a mainstream movie was groundbreaking stuff. It was an excellent vehicle for Ellen Page, with Jason Bateman doing a nice job treading the line between likeable and creepy, and a key strand of the story touching on Juno’s relationship with her stepmother Bren (Allison Janney). The undertone of not having to be a birthparent to love your child is prevalent throughout Juno.
The painstaking creation of Coraline’s universe is super impressive, and the meticulous craftsmanship supports an engaging fable that frightens kids and entertains adults alike. Moving into a creepy house in a new town, Coraline (Dakota Fanning) cannot get the attention of her parents and, all alone and loitering, she discovers a doorway into another world. There she finds an Other Mother (Terri Hatcher) – delightful and engaging in a way that her real mother (also Terri Hatcher) isn’t – who tempts Coraline into believing the grass on that side of the figurative fence is greener. But of course, things are not as they seem and Coraline is forced into learning to appreciate what she had.
Freaky Friday (2003)
Remember the time before the Lindsay Lohan train had derailed, crashed and then caught on fire, when she was the fresh-freckled face of Disney movies? Between The Parent Trap and Herbie Fully Loaded, Freaky Friday had her doing the body-switching thing with her mother, played by Jamie Lee Curtis. They wring the premise dry trying for laughs, tackling a well-worn premise that sees them walking a mile in each other’s shoes as they learn about the difficulties each of them have to deal with, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah – this isn’t just a cliché, it’s a remake of a cliché. Hey, we didn’t say this was a list of the best movies, just the most memorable, so it earns a place.
The Roald Dahl story of the neglected Matilda discovering special powers and dishing out comeuppances to her oppressors still resonates with children today, and the 1996 film with Mara Wilson in the title role is a timeless classic. While Matilda has to overcome her shonky car salesman Dad (Danny DeVito) and the delightful child-hating Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), it’s after a long discussion where her Mother (Rhea Perlman) maintains that Matilda is four years old, not the six and half she actually is, that we realise that the greatest betrayal that Matilda suffers is from her distracted Mother. She is more interested in her Bingo than she is in her daughter, and leaves poor Matilda to fend for herself.
Which teenage girl hasn’t dreamed of turning her mother into a bear? While Brave subverted the standard princess stereotype with Merida (Kelly McDonald) refusing to marry any of the suitable Scottish suitors, it also messes with the traditional mother role. The edgiest part of Brave is when Elinor (Emma Thompson) begins to take on the wild nature of the bear that she has become and turns on her daughter. It’s a wrinkle that you don’t see coming and raises the stakes just when required. There is no princely love interest in this Pixar version of a princess movie, as it’s really all about the love between a mother and a daughter.
Like Juno, Precious has a pregnant teenager at its centre, but that’s where the comparisons end. There are no hamburger phones to be seen in this version of 1987 Harlem and the dialogue doesn’t crackle. For Precious (Gabourey Sidibe), being sixteen and pregnant is not even close to the worst thing that happens to her. Aside from everything else going on in her difficult life, we find out this isn’t even her first child. There’s no doubt that this is difficult subject matter, but any uncomfortableness is quickly dwarfed by the devastating story and the power of the performances of Sidibe and Mo’Nique, the latter of whom must go down as the worst mother in film history. Regardless of the pain and abuse that rains down on Precious, she refuses to give into despair or follow the example of her Mother, and turns what should be life-ruining news into an inspiration to improve her lot.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
Carrie Fisher claimed that the script for Postcards from the Edge was fiction, but the parallels to her relationship with her mother Debbie Reynolds are clear. There’s no doubt that Fisher was a talented writer and her script, which had Suzanne (Meryl Streep) moving back in with her mother, Doris (Shirley MacLaine), after a drug overdose, works on a number of levels. At the time it was an inside Hollywood tale of a showbiz mother, unwilling (or unable) to step out of the limelight to allow her daughter to have her moment. There’s a telling sequence in the middle of the film where, after much pleading, Suzanne sings an understated song at her welcome home party. As soon as she is finished, Doris leaps to the stage and bangs out a Stephen Sondheim show tune with the unsubtle title “I’m Still Here!”. Now that we know they both died a day apart, the premise of Postcards takes a tragic, yet ironic interpretation. You get the sense that a younger Carrie Fisher may have rolled her eyes at her mother jumping in yet again to steal her thunder, but the older version of herself would surely laugh as it seems that they were a double act all along.
In memory of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds…