You can never quite predict what will happen when parents intrude on their kids’ lives, no matter what their ages — a fact of life that has inspired a rich subgenre of such films as “She’s Out of Control,” “Mother,” “The Guilt Trip” and last year’s surprisingly sweet “Blockers.” Based on the novel “Whatever Makes You Happy” by William Sutcliffe, director Cindy Chupack’s “Otherhood” follows three meddling mothers who travel to New York City to surprise their wayward adult sons with an unexpected visit, offers a welcome female-centered take on empty-nester syndrome in the process. Part guilt trip, part gentle ode to smothering mothers, it could be called “Why Don’t You Call Your Mother More Often: The Movie.” Despite a shaky third act, Chupack and company find great success by keeping the shenanigans grounded in a sense of pathos.
Carol (Angela Bassett), Gillian (Patricia Arquette) and Helen (Felicity Huffman) have been close for decades, the bond between them forged way back on the playground when their young sons became best friends. They’ve stuck together through their kids’ milestone moments (like graduation, proms and hospital visits), as well as their own life-altering ones (like divorce and death). But since their boys became men and moved away from suburban Poughkeepsie, the gal pals rarely see each other anymore. They only manage to catch up during their annual Mother’s Day brunch, reminiscing and gabbing about the current exploits of their now-grown children.
Yet on the one day of the year set aside to celebrate a mother’s unconditional love, their busy sons have sidelined them, forgetting to send cards, flowers or any thoughtful acknowledgement beyond the obligatory text message. Of course, there are reasons why none have been eager to stay in touch: Since the death of Carol’s husband years prior, the divide separating her son Matt (Sinqua Walls) has only grown wider, with neither knowing how to relate to the other. Gillian’s overbearing, overly-opinionated nature has greatly impacted her anxious son Daniel (Jake Hoffman), inspiring neuroses and insecurity over his relationship with girlfriend Erin (Heidi Gardner). Helen’s extreme vanity and bitterness after the divorce from her first husband led to an estrangement from her gay son Paul (Jake Lacy), who’s also hiding a few big secrets from her.
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Feeling rejected and miffed, the trio concoct a plan to show up on their sons’ doorsteps unannounced, hoping to be needed again and to recharge their motherly spirits. They believe their parental interference will be a win-win for everyone. However, over the course of their girls trip, Carol, Gillian and Helen inadvertently discover that it’s not just their sons who need to change; they too need to redefine their own lives and relationships.
For a narrative that inherently works to pull these women apart, scattering them all over the city on their personal, independent journeys, it’s impressive that Chupack and co-writer Mark Andrus are able to keep bringing them back together. That’s where the genuine charm of the film resides, and where the actresses’ effervescent chemistry shines. These typically marginalized women are shown as dynamic, complex and layered. Whether it be shopping in SoHo, a late night run for comfort food, or hanging out in a hotel room validating each other, their rapport is captured beautifully, making audiences feel like they’re one of these friends. Grace notes are handled with a tender touch, whether it’s Matt finding a sketch Carol left behind or Daniel compassionately conversing with Gillian. Editors Sunny Hodge and Kevin Tent cleanly cut bubbly, bright montages that emphasize the key bonding rituals of female friendship like road trips, makeovers and late night partying.
While the filmmakers have crafted compelling characters and conundrums, they unfortunately fail to give them better connective tissue and a satisfying third act. Though the story isn’t so much about the sons’ friendship as their moms’, Matt, Paul and Daniel seem too disconnected to be believable buddies. The two brief occasions in which they’re shown together aren’t enough to sell their enduring camaraderie. The inevitable role-reversal sequence, where they deliver a lecture to their mothers about partying too hard, staying out too late and not calling, feels unearned and not as funny as it ought to be. It’s confounding that Matt and Daniel are allowed earned apologies, but Paul isn’t. His grievances are made clear, yet they’re totally underdeveloped, as are Helen’s actions toward substantive change. Plus, there’s hardly any closure in between the ladies’ predictable third-act argument — complete with super-subtle “Waiting to Exhale” reference — and when they make up later.
Exploring a woman’s ever-changing identity — specifically a mother’s morphing role — is this film’s greatest strength. Still, without much of an impactful ending, the potential for resonant thematic profundity is left unfulfilled.