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.