In many of 2021’s screenplay contenders, motherhood is laid bare in all of its thorny reality. These are movies in which, as Olivia Colman’s protagonist reveals in “The Lost Daughter,” parenting is a “crushing responsibility.” For her character, there is ecstatic relief with every reprieve from parenting one’s children, despite the gnawing guilt. Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, in selecting the slim, interior, radical Elena Ferrante novel as her first screenplay to adapt and direct, has boldly taken advantage of new opportunities for women behind the camera to reframe our conception of motherhood.
Gyllenhaal, herself a mom of two with husband Peter Sarsgaard (who co-stars in her film’s adulterous subplot), had become tired of sharing her ideas as an actress on set with a “spoonful of sugar.” Appearing at the Museum of Modern Art’s annual The Contenders series last month, she said, “This character is so fucked up and I really relate to her….I felt a shock of feeling seen.” She asked herself, what if we broke the agreement to remain silent, what if we said it out loud without the sugar-coating? “A movie theater is both a communal and personal thing at the same time.”
On stage, Gyllenhaal expressed her thoughts on motherhood: “there’s no way to not come as a beginner, and there’s no way to fail….Your own body changes, another body comes out and sucks on you.” And while Ferrante penned the line “I am an unnatural mother,” and Colman’s Leda delivers it, the idea haunts all the women of “The Lost Daughter.”
It’s seen in Dakota Johnson’s harried, overwhelmed character, too. And in the way observing this ripe mother and her clingy toddler (and her little doll, too) triggers Leda’s repressed maternal memories. She recalls her younger self (Jessie Buckley) as a mother struggling to retain her intellectual and erotic agency. A profound choice Leda made in reaction to the “crushing” burdens of raising two small daughters still haunts her decades later – and unconsciously drives her obsession with Johnson’s character.
In times of crisis, one parenting advice chestnut is to remember to put the oxygen mask over your nose and mouth first, and then assist your kids. In that critical moment, a mother’s actions define her in the world. Who comes first: the ‘me,’ or the ‘we?’ While Leda’s past haunt Leda her, the maternal figure in “King Richard,” Oracene Williams (Aungenue Ellis), mother of tennis superstars Venus and Serena, supports her girls cognizant of her self-sacrifice.
When Betty, a nosy Compton neighbor, calls social services on the Williams family because their father (Will Smith) has had the girls practicing in a rainstorm, the implacable Oracene crosses the street. She knocks on Betty’s door, and lays down the law: “I know you know how hard it is raising a daughter. I have five of them. Five. Don’t make me come back over here again.” This mother knows the crushing weight, and then bends her knees and lifts.
Although the movie takes its title from the champions’ father, Smith’s flamboyant Richard Williams, the mother is the counterbalance. The primary breadwinner, she worked double shifts as a nurse while making dinner, doing laundry, and coaching. She’s the family backbone. Richard may have had the dream but Oracene created the infrastructure and facilitated a way for it to be manifested.
The real Oracene collaborated with screenwriter Zach Baylin to ensure that she was depicted as no less a participant than Richard in the miracle of growing athletes Venus and Serena to international tennis dominance. “I didn’t realize who she was until I sat down with her,” confesses Baylin via phone. “She was more reserved, a private person. Whereas Richard is bombastic and outward facing and can be so verbose, she was internal, private but no less strong. I had to figure out how to show her strength and resolve while not changing her personality.”
And while Oracene is an attentive mother, she also confronts her husband in their kitchen, informing the philanderer that she’d pick her girls over him, motherhood over wifely duty. The source of this conversation was Mrs. Williams. According to Baylin, she said: “…’if the argument’s going to be in there let’s tell it how it happened’” She supplied dialog. She’d sacrificed a lot in herself to ensure she was there to raise her daughters. For Oracene, having them become tennis champs was the goal, but they were also going to become fully rounded successful human beings. “Whatever her frustrations with Richard were, she was going to stay until that was accomplished.”
In contrast to Leda, Oracene manifests strength in the self-sacrifice it took to dedicate her life to her children and their future success. “She grounded them,” says Baylin. “She was more of the disciplinarian, Richard on court was loving and soft and goofy and encouraging but Oracene was all business. She lacked the luxury to be that freewheeling. She saw her responsibility of raising them as heavy.” One thing that Oracene expressed to the filmmakers, trying to ensure that they got her voice right, “’Don’t make me look like a wimp.’”
In “C’mon C’mon” we see the weight of maternal responsibility in Gaby Hoffman’s character when she reluctantly leaves her son in the hands of her estranged brother (Joaquin Phoenix) in order to take care of her bipolar husband (Scoot McNairy) who has gone off his meds. While Writer-Director Mike Mills recognizes that parenting is “messy, deeply challenging” and, yet, “I wasn’t wanting to portray a mom as crushed, who didn’t find joy and beauty in the experience; there’s joy all the time, you see Gaby listening to her son Woody Norman at the table, having a bath together, talking to him in bed.”
For Mills, it’s not a light joy; the mother-child bond shows the pathos and gravity that life has to offer. As a parent of a son, Hopper, with filmmaker Miranda July, the movie is personal without being strictly autobiographical. “Everything about the film is about my experiences being a parent, which have been the most profound experiences of my life.”
Originally, watching the movie a specific line of dialogue threw me off. There’s a point when Phoenix, overwhelmed by uncle duties, calls his sister in California from New York. He says, “I know you won’t understand this as a mom, but working all day long and taking care of kids is really exhausting.” I bristled when I saw the movie at The Hamptons Film Festival, but Mills clarified that the character is being ironic and sarcastic. “We’re exploring a guy having blind spots and not getting it, he thinks he can make it work and he’s proven wrong.”
This insight cracked the movie open for me. My working mother bias blinded me. I read the comment literally, not as the playful sarcasm between siblings in difficult times, perhaps in part because my own sibling relationship is so brittle. Mills had pressed a personal button, which is part of the movie’s power, how close it cuts to the intense intimacy of the family unit, how unsparing that can be.
Mills takes it a step farther in a line the nephew delivers to his uncle: “My mom says no matter how much we love each other there’s still so much of each other that we’ll never know.” The nugget at the middle is: the child, who supposedly is the less powerful one in the relationship, makes you see all those parts of yourself that you have successfully hidden from yourself for years. “So who has the power?” asks Mills.
As the subject shifts to Pablo Larrain’s “Spencer,” and the affectionate relationship of a bulimic Princess Diana (Kristen Stewart) and her young sons William and Harry, Mills has a last thought about the maternal bond: “I think about what we give and grant and make possible for our kids, totally unconsciously, unwillingly and out of our control.”
In “Spencer,” Larrain teases out this notion of unconscious emotional impact. The royal brothers, William and Harry, sense their mother’s sadness by osmosis. The film foregrounds the titular yummy mummy whose posh exterior fails to mask her internal struggles. In a note from the director circulated by his publicist, he writes: “This film is not meant to portray literal events but is rather used as a means to explore an intense emotional landscape: the scrutiny of fame, the demands of motherhood and marriage, and the need that all people have for self-agency.”
Larrain, working in tandem with his star, the luminous yet awkward Kristen Stewart, renders Diana as the tweedy marshmallow of love. She’s a playful, engaged yet anxious mother married to a royal who prefers another woman right under the gimlet gaze of his mother, Queen Elizabeth. This perspective, seeing the English rose as a connected mother of lovely boys, having her every eating habit queried by her chilly mother-in-law in front of everybody, humanizes her.
The film unfolds one weekend in drafty Sandringham Castle in which Diana becomes aware that she might have sacrificed her personal agency, her authentic adventurous and spontaneous self, to the maw of Queen and protocol. In a poignant scene, Diana takes refuge from the court’s relentless social functions in a small bedroom with her boys. William and Harry pile on their mother like puppies. Their luxurious intimacy is real and touching – but she can’t filter out her despair. The struggle to be this warm mother, in this chilly family, overwhelms her.
Diana reacts to the pressure of palace life, her crushing burden, by escaping early. She grabs her kids and speeds off in her sports car, unguarded. The movie ends in an upbeat, Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang moment of what fun we had that day when we were lost in the country with our mummy. But the tragedy of hindsight overshadows the joy: You only have to peer into the haunted eyes of her beloved princes in any paparazzi photograph to know the toll of the family’s ruptured bond and their mother’s untimely, very public death.
So, for Diana, the ultimate choice in reaction to the crushing burden of adult responsibilities is not between being a mother or a wife. But in doing anything she can to rescue the third party in this equation: her individual self. She needs to adjust her oxygen mask first before she can save her kids.
Once taken up, our exploration of motherhood in this year’s screenplays becomes prismatic. We see it in “Mass,” a film that so courageously illustrates that no matter how we raise our children, there is a chance we will fail them, that they will fail us—and society. In “Mass,” we see that even if we are good parents, good mothers, our children might literally grow up to be murderers—and be murdered. We see it in “House of Gucci,” where motherhood becomes secondary, tertiary to the quest for money and power and control. We see it in “Belfast” and “Parallel Mothers.”
Together, these scripts trace the complexities of motherhood from multiple perspectives: biopics, memoir, literary adaptations, period pieces and original explorations. Returning to Gyllenhaal and “The Lost Daughter,” the story attracts this industry mother, wife and artist because she identifies with Leda. She sees her as a kind of hero, “aberrant, transgressive and, yes, she is brave enough to go down into [the messiness of] it and that makes her a hero like Achilles.”
In that vein, “C’mon C’mon” writer-director Mills sent me back to the Ferrante well to read the novelist’s short “Guardian” essays about motherhood. In one she wrote “A secret cord that can’t be cut binds us to the bodies of our mothers: there is no way to detach ourselves, or at least I’ve never managed to. It’s impossible to go back inside her; it’s hard to move past her shadow.”
And it is that shadow of motherhood, its joys and sorrows, its cyclical acts of creation and destruction, that looms large in so many of this year’s exquisite screenplays. Motherhood is hard. Motherhood can be nightmarish. Motherhood can be the weight under which women are destroyed—and sometimes, in ways small and big, triumph.