Motherhood in Cinema: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The cinematic portrayal of motherhood has changed dramatically over time. In past decades mothers were often present, but only present within the margins. Their characters were never the center of attention, and if they were, it would be because they were at the center of criticism. For example, in the 1928 film The Crowd, the birth scene of the film’s hero puts a significant amount of effort into ignoring the mother’s presence altogether. The film denies the chance to see the mother at every corner, emphasized further by the amount of importance put into the father’s presence. In this period of cinema, the mother was simply a product of a patriarchal society and there to represent the critical values of it, being that women were to be seen and not heard and conform to their role as a housekeeper. 

Perhaps a more famous example can be found in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, for despite being a central part of the narrative; Mrs. Bates continues to exist only on the periphery. Norma Bates is historically one of the most popular representations of mothers in cinema, and yet we only hear of her being a possessive, overbearing, and hateful person. Now, Psycho does not claim to be an accurate representation of motherhood, but it did popularize a trope to come out of the horror genre that can be summarised as mothers being the root of all evil. Sometimes they are the root due to how they brought their child up – an example of this would be Carrie – or they are characters so intensely fragile that it is almost unbearable to watch them try and survive – an example of this could be Wendy in The Shining. Again, no one claims that these portrayals represent how mothers are, especially in the horror genre that overdramatizes its characters’ actions. However, it does lead to one question: where can find better and more accurate representations of motherhood in cinema? 

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (COURTESY: Universal Studios)

Arguably, the melodrama is where we have found better, more multidimensional portrayals of motherhood. According to Dr. Ann Kaplan, professor of English at Rutgers University, maternal melodramas were there to provide a more in-depth account of the experience of mothers within cinema, and these genres tended to appeal more to female audiences. Melodramas actually presented mothers as complex people, rather than as symbols of patriarchal functions. By focusing more on the emotional state and situations of the characters, melodramas create a more empathetic viewing that allows spectators to understand motherhood through cinema more than they have ever been able to in the past. According to various film researchers such as Barbara Klinger and Christine Gledhill, who have both published books discussing the genre of melodrama, the genre allows us to think through moral issues and conflicts. The conflict between good and evil is central to melodramas and enables us to analyze the ethical choices in our own lives.

There are a lot of different genres in cinema that thrive off of the ‘morally good vs. morally evil’ trope ranging from sci-fi to action to horror. Still, the thing that makes it so crucial to melodramas is the fact that they focus on the daily conflicts experienced by ordinary people. It is entertaining to watch Luke Skywalker battle between the light and the dark, but for the most part, it is not impactful enough for us to question our own moral deficits. Melodramas allow us to witness fictional stories with characters that feel real enough to make a substantial impact on how we view the world and the ethical dilemmas people face every day. It is crucial for motherhood to have this kind of representation in cinema because it is a highly complex issue that has affected everyone in one way or another.

Unlike in horror, mothers within melodramas’ flaws can be viewed as an everyday mistake, rather than an act of evil. Melodramas are often presented from the victim’s point of view, therefore resulting in the lead female characters becoming a victim of the conflict that surrounds them. In cinema, the portrayal of motherhood can primarily rely on the eyes that we see it through. That being said, I want to talk about three movies that present a raw representation of motherhood. Each sends an entirely different message that is essential to understanding its complexities. These films are The Florida Project, how it uses the innocence of a child to understand the flaws of a mother, Wildlife and how it uses the confusion of a teenager to detest a mother’s mistakes, and how The Lost Daughter uses an actual mother to provoke sympathy. 

The Florida Project 

Bria Vinaite as Halley & Brooklynn Prince as Moonee in The Florida Project (COURTESY: A24)

The Florida Project follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her somewhat troubled mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) throughout a summer they spend at “The Magic Castle”, which is a cheap motel located right outside of Disneyland. Director Sean Baker brings attention to childhood innocence, and the issue of poverty and class divides within America. The relationship between mother and daughter emphasizes both of these themes. Halley is a single mom, and is struggling at coping with this – she doesn’t have a job, drinks too much, and often puts her child in danger regardless of the reasoning for it. When it comes down to it, the audience recognizes that Halley isn’t a fit mother, yet despite this fact, I still found it difficult to hate Halley.

For the most part, the narrative is presented through Moonee’s experiences, and – Baker uses a variety of visual techniques to hide the harsh reality of poverty and the disconnect for the children caught within it. Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe made the decision to increase the saturation of the film so that the world surrounding Moonee felt a lot more colorful than it actually was. This technique on its own is central to understanding the innocence of Moonee, as it outlines the fact that she doesn’t fully understand what is going on around her and is living in her own little bubble. We, as viewers know that Moonee is being neglected, but Moonee is utterly unaware of this fact due to her young age and inability to perceive the world. She is just a girl who holds an unexplainable amount of love for her mother. When Halley resorts to prostitution in order to provide for her daughter, a strange man walks in on Moonee in the bathroom. We the audience know this to be a very sad and uncomfortable situation – and something that no child should be subjected to – but the fact is Moonee doesn’t know what is going on.

Brooklynn Prince as Moonee and Valeria Cotto as Jancey in The Florida Project (COURTESY: A24)

This manipulates how we see Halley throughout the film, as the lack of awareness that her daughter has toward her shortcomings means that they are not a focus of the narrative. There is a scene of Moonee and her friend running through busy traffic, and despite the fact that this is dangerous, all we as viewers see is the bright-colored cinematography, and all that we hear is the laughter of children. We don’t see a mother that fails to account for the whereabouts of her child, and we don’t see a mother that inflicts an unhealthy diet on her child; we see a little girl enjoying a cheeseburger after a long day of roaming through the colorful world she has made for herself.

Through the innocence and naivety of Moonee, we get to see how important a mother is to a child; even with their flaws and mistakes that are external to the role, they are playing. We know that Moonee must be taken away from her mother in order to live a happy life, but Moonee doesn’t understand this fact, as all she sees is her mother; the one person in the world that would do absolutely anything for her.  The fact that Halley is remiss in her parenting duties isn’t ignored throughout the film – we know that this lingering factor will eventually be relevant. However, by presenting this experience through the eyes of Moonee, it allows us to see that even though some mothers may not have the mental capacity to reach what is expected of them socially, they are still the most critical person in the world to some little person out there, and that is a title that no one can ever take away. 

Wildlife

Carey Mulligan as Jeanette in Wildlife (COURTESY: IFC Films)

Wildlife (2018) directed by Paul Dano is a film about a family who just moved to a small town in Montana. Jeanette (Carey Mulligan), Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal), and their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) are living pay to pay, until one day they aren’t, and the money is gone. This inevitably causes problems between Jeanette and Jerry and leads to the downfall of what seemed like their happy marriage. Jerry seems to be going through an identity crisis and decides to leave his family to go and fight a wildfire happening nearby, leaving Joe and his mother alone. Throughout the period of his absence, Jeanette goes through a depression that has a significant change in how she conducts herself as a mother, negatively affecting her son Joe.

The film is mainly presented through a restricted narrative, as we see the consequences of divorce through the eyes of 15-year-old Joe. Unlike Moonee, Joe is at an age where he is beginning to understand love and relationships and is far from naïve to the reality that presents itself in front of him. He is clearly very confused and hurt by the break-up of his parents, and due to the breakdown, his mother doesn’t receive the support that he needed throughout this time period. If anything, his mother only makes matters worse by distancing herself from the role of a caregiver in his life, even allowing Joe to see her with another man. Jeanette resorts to having sex with her boss, as she thinks that this will give her more opportunities and afford her the chance to create a good life for her and Joe, as they lack any consistent income.

Ed Oxenbould as Joe Brinson & Carey Mulligan as Jeanette in Wildlife (COURTESY: IFC Films)

However, unlike in The Florida Project, Joe is wise enough to understand what his mother is doing. Despite the fact that he may know why she is doing it, it doesn’t change the fact that it completely shatters his heart to see his mother with someone other than his father, as he was raised believing they were the pinnacle of true love. We have a certain amount of empathy for the situation that Jeanette is in – she is depressed and unhappy with how her life has ended up. Still, because we see all of this through Joe, we have an overwhelming amount of sympathy for him and notice the emotional impact this has on him as a person.  Due to Joe’s understanding of the situation he is in, we see how sometimes a mother can become the villain in her own child’s story. This doesn’t come in the same form as Carrie’s mother or Norma Bates, because as stated earlier the melodrama allows for these issues to be presented through the scope of what feels like a real person. The relationship between Jeanette and Joe is a lot more complex than just her being a ‘bad’ mother. In order to understand the message of the film, it is essential to understand that these actions don’t make her a morally bad person but someone who struggles to separate her own identity from her role as a mother, and the direct consequences of this, especially in the 1950s.

While the innocence of The Florida Project outlines the room for error when it comes to motherhood, Wildlife emphasizes just how impactful these errors can be. Although it is easy to understand why a mother may do what she does, it doesn’t change the fact that it could be detrimental to the growth of a child and present itself in trauma for years to follow. Although melodramas are usually presented through a woman’s eyes, it is not unheard of for them to have a male lead, with a lot of Douglas Sirk’s films being dominated by men, and usually presenting them as a victim. Wildlife does the opposite of films similar to it, and by not enlisting Mulligan as the victim, we can understand those on the receiving end of understandable but poignant actions. Of course, as The Florida Project shows, it is okay for mothers to make mistakes, but sometimes these mistakes are irreversible, and there is nothing that can be done to undo them. 

The Lost Daughter

Olivia Colman as Leda in The Lost Daughter (COURTESY: Netflix)

The Lost Daughter (2021) directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal is undoubtedly one of the most realistic portrayals of motherhood that has been presented throughout cinema. The film first presents itself as a mystery as Leda (Olivia Coleman) begins her holiday in Italy. We slowly start to find out about Leda’s past as specific triggers are placed in front of her that remind her of something she is clearly trying to forget. Through the presence of a young mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), we find out that Leda is a mother, although this isn’t outlined for a while after we are introduced to her. After a series of flashbacks of Leda when she was younger (Jesse Buckley), we find out that she lived with her boyfriend at the time, and together they raised two daughters. While these flashbacks include the inevitable heart-warming moments between mothers and their daughters that are commonly portrayed in the film, it also represents the widely ignored moments—the moments of regret, exhaustion, and complete loss of self. Jesse Buckley, who was my pick for supporting actress at this year’s academy awards, portrays a struggling mother with such care and authenticity. It is clear that this character is in a tug of war between the love she has for her children and the overwhelming want she has to live her own life for herself. It is eventually revealed that Leda ended up leaving her family, which is why she feels such an intense amount of guilt.

This is a harrowing yet realistic portrayal of motherhood within modern society. As stated earlier, melodramas usually present themselves through the point of view of the victim – this usually results in the lead female character, regardless of their situation, becoming the victim of their internal conflict. It allows us as viewers to feel sorry for these characters and form a human understanding that goes beyond the usual good and bad characters within cinema. It is often expected that mothers treat their own emotions as secondary. Still, because The Lost Daughter presents this story through the eyes of someone who has experienced it directly, it allows us to understand that human emotions are far too complex to rank and that everyone, even mothers, have the right to be selfish.

Jessie Buckley as Leda in The Lost Daughter (COURTESY: Netflix)

The Lost Daughter introduced us to Leda as a person before it introduced her to us as a mother, which is why we are actually able to emphasize her situation when it could be very easy to dislike her for it. All of these films have in common that they present a unique portrayal of motherhood, all of which are emphasized through the point of view of character. The point of view of characters in these films change what message we take from the narrative, and offer a different definition of what motherhood is. If The Florida Project were presented through the eyes of Halley, perhaps we would have felt sorry for her; if Wildlife were shown through the eyes of Jeanette, maybe we would dislike her husband instead of her, and if The Lost Daughter were introduced through the eyes of Leda’s daughter rather than her, I think it’s undeniable that she may have been the source of conflict. None of these films objectively showcase what motherhood should or shouldn’t be but represent its complexities of it.

Through the art of film-making, we can see motherhood through multiple different lenses and develop empathy for a concept that is universally boiled down or ignored. There are still so many different takes on motherhood within cinema that have been made, and many to be made, but I believe all three of these films present a realistic account of motherhood from all angles, by presenting them in the form of a melodrama.

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