×

Film Review: ‘Look at Us Now, Mother!’

Gayle Kirschenbaum explores her fraught relationship with her mother in this richly ambivalent documentary.

With:
Gayle Kirschenbaum, Mildred Kirschenbaum.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2432704/?ref_=ttco_co_tt

No coat hangers were harmed in Gayle Kirschenbaum’s fraught bond with her mother, a former Long Island matron now retired, but feisty as ever, in Florida. In Gayle’s richly ambivalent documentary about their relationship, friends and relatives — and in no uncertain terms, the filmmaker herself — confirm that Mildred Kirschenbaum was, and, in her 90s remains, a bracing piece of work. “Look at Us Now, Mother!” is, in part, a therapeutic exercise designed to help bring the two to terms after a lifetime of conflict. Their rapprochement is gratifying, but less compelling than Gayle’s compassionate, candid inquiry — with support from abundant home-movie footage — into how her mother grew into the eye-watering virago she was, especially where her daughter was concerned. The film should easily hold its own with audiences for the “meet my crazy family” docs that now litter the field of democratized nonfiction filmmaking.  

“What’s on her lung is on her tongue,” a friend observes of Mildred’s blithe license to speak her mind no matter who gets burned in the process. By Gayle’s account and that of two brothers who got off relatively unscathed, as Mildred’s daughter she was singled out at birth for the corrosive full treatment. Yet one of the first things you notice is the close physical resemblance between the two women, who dominate the screen as a dueling duo throughout. Both are lush Jewish beauties, blessed with cascading curls and aquiline noses. Yet when Gayle was growing up, her mother, always obsessed with appearances, missed no opportunity to excoriate the looks her daughter inherited from her.

Equally eager to underscore their differences, Gayle paints Mildred as practical, down-to-earth and lacking in all self-awareness as she lived the suburban Jewish life that was her generation’s lot. (“In my generation you got married. Finished,” she says without self-pity.) By contrast her daughter was all exposed nerve endings, a sensitive child who first strove to please her implacable parent, then rebelled by becoming an artist who specialized in self-scrutiny. In middle age Gayle remains unattached, unless you count her dog Chelsea, and she’s frank about her problems with intimacy.

Refusing to pass judgment on is herself, Mildred counters a therapist’s searching questions with a firmly repeated “I don’t remember.” But she has reckoned without her daughter, who sets out to explore and heal their troubled relationship by putting her mother under a microscope we look through, suspended between fascination and discomfort. Our sympathy for her grows the more we learn of her wounded childhood with a bankrupt father who twice attempted suicide. The loss of a younger sister compounded Mildred’s anguish and, in an era when psychiatric help was dismissed as shameful, turned her into an emotional fortress.

Any self-awareness this obviously bright woman might have had was deflected into incessant criticism of her daughter, whom she more than once disciplined by parking her on top of the refrigerator. Perhaps, too, she harbored the frustrations of many of her generation. Yet all too late in the movie we learn that she ran a successful travel agency. And she can’t be written off as Mommie Dearest: Whether before or after their reconciliation, the walls of her apartment are festooned with Gayle’s artwork.

Does Gayle stack the deck against her mother?  At times she gives reality a lift that’s entertaining, and a touch unnerving. She drags her nasally obsessed mom to a bemused plastic surgeon who decrees on cue that there’s no work to be done on Gayle’s noble proboscis. The two embark on a slightly stagy online double-dating adventure. Several therapists are wheeled in to double down on Mildred’s reluctance to examine herself. “Why don’t you waterboard me and I’ll confess?” grumbles the immensely quotable Mildred, and by then it’s hard not to feel for her.

Gayle is hardly the first child of a domineering parent in trying to figure out how to break away without breaking off. The symbiosis between mother and daughter is by turns appalling, charming and endearing. As one astute therapist puts it, one of these two powerful women wants to forgive, the other — if she can be brought to know it — to be forgiven.

Popular on Variety

Film Review: 'Look at Us Now, Mother!'

Reviewed on DVD, Los Angeles, March 24, 2016. Running time: 84 MIN.

Production: A Kirschenbaum Prods. production. Produced by Gayle Kirschenbaum. Co-producer, Melissa Jo Peltier. Consulting producers, Lori Cheatle, Mark Mori.

Crew: Directed, written by Gayle Kirschenbaum. Camera (color, HDV), Steven Gladstone, Gayle Kirschenbaum; editors, Alex Keipper, Gayle Kirschenbaum; music, Jonathan Sacks; music supervisor, Don Dinicola; sound (Dolby Digital/stereo), Quentin Chiappetta; associate producer, Kirsten Larvick.

With: Gayle Kirschenbaum, Mildred Kirschenbaum.

More Film

  • The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos

    Korea: 'The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos’ Rules Chuseok Holiday Box Office

    Local films dominated cinemagoing in South Korea over the 4-day Chuseok holiday weekend, traditionally one of the year’s busiest periods. The winner was “The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos.” Opening on Wednesday, the CJ Entertainment release earned $20.2 million from 1.97 million admissions over five days. A film adaptation of CJ E&M’s 2014 hit TV [...]

  • Disco

    New Europe Sells Toronto and San Sebastian Film 'Disco' to Several Territories (EXCLUSIVE)

    Jan Naszewski’s New Europe Film Sales has signed several distribution deals on “Disco,” which had its world premiere in Toronto Film Festival’s Discovery section and makes its European premiere in San Sebastian’s New Directors competition. The film has been picked up by Palace for Australia and New Zealand, Artcam for Czech Republic and Slovakia, Kino [...]

  • "Jade Dynasty" in front at the

    China Box Office: 'Jade Dynasty' in Front Ahead of Mixed Competition

    With “Jade Dynasty” out front, Chinese action and Asian animation films led the way at the China box office over the past weekend, while the few American titles in play have failed to attract many moviegoers. Chinese action fantasy “Jade Dynasty” led the weekend box office in its debut with $38.1 million, figures from consultancy [...]

  • The Painted Bird

    Venice Competition Film 'The Painted Bird' Is Czech Entry in Oscar Race

    Václav Marhoul’s “The Painted Bird,” which world premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the main competition and also played at the Toronto Film Festival in Special Presentations, has been selected as the Czech Republic’s entry for the 92nd Academy Awards in the international feature film category. The pic follows the journey of an unnamed [...]

  • Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar'

    Pakistan Picks Freshman Effort 'Laal Kabootar' as Its Oscar Entry

    Pakistan’s Academy Selection Committee has chosen “Laal Kabootar” as its candidate for the Oscars’ international feature film category. Directed by first-time helmer Kamal Khan, the gangland thriller set in Karachi’s underbelly follows the events that transpire when a woman in search of her husband’s killer is thrown together with a cab driver and petty criminal [...]

  • Atlantis

    Toronto Film Review: 'Atlantis'

    “It took you 10 years to cleanse this region of Soviet propaganda and myths,” says one character to another in “Atlantis,” going on to suggest that the devastation now left behind may never be “cleansed” at all. A strikingly bleak vision of a near future in which Ukraine has won its war with Russia but [...]

  • Beyonce Knowles'The Lion King' film premiere,

    ABC Announces Behind-the-Scenes Special for Beyoncé's 'Lion King' LP

    ABC has announced a new behind-the-scenes look into the making of Beyoncé’s “The Lion King: The Gift” LP, which is set to air September 16 on ABC at 10 p.m. EST. Titled “Beyoncé Presents: Making the Gift,” the new hour-long special will allow viewers to “experience the process” behind the “Lion King” companion album, according [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content