Recommends: Top 15 Complex Mother/Daughter Relationships on Screen
Happy Mother’s day and all that jazz! What better way to commemorate the day than exploring some of the most complex mother daughter relationships on screen. I am, myself a daughter (crazy, I know), and have found it rather fascinating the various depictions of this dynamic. It’s not easy being mum, nor is it easy being a daughter and with generational divides or deeper rooted issues, it’s sad to say it but we can’t all live our lives like The Gilmore Girls – well, the majority of The Gilmore Girls. We fight, make up, fight even harder and bottle up a lot of messy emotions that often get dealt with way too late. Doesn’t always mean we love each other less, it really is just complicated.
I’ve wanted to do this list for a while and there really is no better time. Steering clear of naming this selection ‘the downright twisted’, I wanted to compile the striking portrayals of mother/daughterhood in cinema that for me, have lingered long after the credits have rolled. This is not to say there is no darkness, of course there is. Jealousy, resentment, indifference, murderous intent; is as prevalent as the mild inconvenience as the better relationships on the list. But it’s easy to paint a picture of warped sensibilities and violent hatred, possessiveness and psychotic repressions. In the end, mothers and daughters aren’t always so toxic. Though the toxic ones make for some fascinating viewing…
Honourable Mentions: A Raisin in the Sun (Petrie, 1961), Marnie (Hitchcock, 1964), Wild at Heart (Lynch, 1990), Crooklyn (Lee, 1994), The Winter Guest (Rickman, 1997), The Diary of Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015), Edge of Seventeen (Craig, 2016), The Truth (Koreeda, 2019), Shiva Baby (Seligman, 2020).
15. Stoker (Dir. Park Chan-wook, 2013)
Let’s start off a little messed up. A coming-of-age with murderous intent, mad incestuous overtones and some rivalry between mother and daughter over a creepy uncle who shows up following the death of his brother. It’s not the ideal situation. The English language debut of the amazing South Korean director Park Chan-wook, it’s full of atmosphere and filmed beautifully. It’s all senses, sounds and horrifying skin-crawling details. It’s more a mood. Narratively, sure there’s a lot to be desired but Stoker is rich viewing and set with a great cast including Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and a toned down Nicole Kidman.
India Stoker is a weird teenager; detached from her classmates and harbouring a dark lust for something even she can’t quite figure out. That is until her uncle Charlie turns ups out of the blue; a man she never knew existed, he seems to ‘guide’ his troubled niece whilst also seducing her mother. Her father has just died, the circumstances around it unknown; the family is pretty messed up. All the while, violent events are unfolding around India, with the strange past of her uncle and father coming to light. The two women seem to resent each other, always have. The men in their lives have been the biggest divide between them. Perhaps, they are both very similar in this sense but overall; they have given up on any sort of relationship. Is what they have competitive is or it a lack of familial love that has been absent all along?
14. Saving Face (Dir. Alice Wu, 2004)
Oh, what I wouldn’t give for more Alice Wu films. Her voice as a storyteller is so strong and original, it genuinely is a crime against all of humanity that we have had so little. To date she has made two feature films, and Saving Face was her debut feature. Following a successful young Chinese-American surgeon who is a closeted lesbian to her mother and family friends, she begins a relationship with a dancer, a young woman she knew as a child. Just as their relationship is starting to take off, her unwed mother decides to move in with her, with little consultation. Why? Because she is pregnant… and she won’t reveal who the father is. Unable to house her forever, struggling to hide her sexuality, balance her day-to-day life, she figures that the best way to get rid of her mother is to marry her off.
A comedy drama, it’s so well told as it explores some huge themes and manages it effortlessly. The perception of homosexuality within the Chinese culture is a major one. In fact it tackles a lot of controversial topics though this culture clash; female sexuality (especially in older women), family loyalty, the role of the working woman and the modern ideals young women are expected to conform to. There is play on role reversal between mother and daughter, a complexity in which there is no doubt of the love between them but an emotional constipation that hinders them form ever being able to be honest with one another. With all the topics weighing down on them, it’s no surprise. Still, it’s lovely and ground-breaking work and yet to be matched.
13. Mermaids (Dir. Richard Benjamin, 1990)
Biology at odds with self-identity, another coming-of-age story takes us through lives of a flaky single mother, Rachel, and her two daughters as she moves them from town to town, avoiding men she’s gotten involved with, people and all of her problems at the expense of the girls. Her eldest, fifteen year old Charlotte resents her mother and the lack of consistency in her life so much that she seeks to be the polar opposite. She dreams of a normal family life. Taking up an obsession with the Saints and Catholicism (despite being Jewish), she desires to be a devout and chaste woman before she can become a nun. It seems perfect that they move into a house near a convent, but her morals are challenged by the groundskeeper, Joe. Meanwhile, her mother is entering a relationship with a local shoe store owner (Oi oi, it’s the fabulous Bob Hoskins), resisting as he gradually assimilates positively into her family’s life.
God, I love this movie. Is it perfect? No. But it’s got Cher. And Winona Ryder. And it’s autumnal and so very sixties aesthetic through a nineties lens and I dig it! Witty and quick, of all the films on this list I have shamelessly seen this one the most – the film could be half way through and I’ll just pick it up on TV and religiously devote myself. I mean, there are fears of immaculate conception! Ryder is straight up hilarious as the awkward teenager. My lil’ moody heart wants to be her. The relationship between Rachel and Charlotte is intense; lacking in any authority that comes with parenthood or even respect, they have to learn to manoeuvre this dynamic what will probably benefit both of them.
12. Carrie (Dir. Brian De Palma, 1976)
Probably the most unsettling relationship on this list and perhaps the most harrowing part of the film overall, how could I not bring up Carrie? It always struck me, after all the pop culture references, after reading Stephen Kings striking novel, how the titular character was the greatest victim of them all; her psychic freak-out was long overdue. The horrifying scenes of relentless bullying, the little glimmers of hope sprinkled throughout that eventually proved more cruel than the intentional act of cruelty, it’s just a terrible road to go down. The only person who shows her any kindness is her teacher, and even she does not or cannot do very much to help. I mean, the girls got no chance of fitting in that far into her school career. She had her period in front of everyone and freaked out about it… in front of everyone. Like, she can’t recover. Poor Carrie White, after all of this, is still invited to prom by her crush
It’s made all the worse by her domineering mother, Margaret ‘They’re All Going To Laugh At You’ White. She’s an insane hypocrite, a mad woman, a devoutly religious and overbearing, the very reason that the timid and sweet-natured Carrie is a total mess. Womanhood is a vile sin in her warped world, growing into her body was the ultimate grotesquery committed unto one’s self (‘Dirty Pillows’ is her term for breasts…), periods are a punishment for filthy people with their filthy thoughts. Yet she’s no saint. Her past relationship with Carrie’s unnamed father shows us that. Oh god, I hate her so much. The relationship between Carrie and Margaret probably transcends ‘complex’. What is Carrie to her mother? What does she see in her child? Is she frightened of her? From physical and emotional abuse to weird mind games, she’s a woman who has been tipped over the edge. The ultimate villain. An absolute nightmare. What a brilliant character!
11. Soul Food (Dir. George Tillman Jr., 1997)
Let’s get back into a comfier territory. This one is a little different as the absence of this matriarch reveals the complexities within the relationships between the family, more so the need to fill or sustain the place of the mother figure in their lives. Soul Food is a feel good film but it also manages the plight of the modern woman as three sisters try to live up to the roles they have made for themselves and the ones expected of them as they move through life following the loss of their mother, the integral glue that kept the family together. There’s no resentment, in fact mother and daughters have a great relationship. It’s the pressure that comes with living up to the role, the figure that made you into the person you are.
Told though the eyes of 11 year of Ahmed, it explores the lives of the Joseph family who get together every week to have dinner. Big Mama, their host, makes plenty of ‘soul food’ that brings them closer. She has three daughters, the eldest is career focused lawyer, another is a happily married, the mother of Ahmed and has strained relationship with her older sister, having settled down with her former boyfriend. The youngest sister is newly married and opening a beauty parlour. They are busy people but it is their mother that unites them altogether, a woman they all aspire to and admire, endlessly generous and kind, wise and thoughtful, strong and supportive. So, when she passes away following complications from diabetes related illness, the family falls apart. The women are forced to face some hard truths and soon young Ahmed takes it upon himself to try and fix things, using the advice his Grandmother’s imparted to him before she died.
10. 37 Seconds… (Dir. Hikari, 2019)
Although not in the forefront of this film, it’s a worthy of a mention as it explores a relationship stemmed in a co-dependency that almost could not be helped. 37 Seconds… is a great film for a lot of reasons. It depicts the story of young woman, Mei, with cerebral palsy attempting to gain independence and pursue her dreams of becoming a manga artist in a world that holds many prejudices to those with disabilities. With the casting of an actress with the condition and taking a candid approach towards sexuality, romance and discrimination, Hikari’s feature treads some amazing new ground and does it wonderfully. I have talked at length about this film, check out my review '...I Probably Could Have Lived Freely': 37 Seconds.
But its inclusion is because of the dynamic between mother and daughter. Excluding any spoilers from the main narrative, their relationship is one of need. Mei wants to be independent, is aware that without all the tools available to her both physically and to some degree financially, she has to rely on her mother. But, she is also aware that she has not been given the opportunity for liberation. Her mother harbours a lot of guilt towards Mei, but feels useful as long as she can keep her daughter safe day-to-day and form the world as a whole. Maybe the control comforts her, it’s all she has after all, but there is never an intention to smother. It’s a miscommunication but more so a fear of change that hinders her mother, leading to Mei taking the initiative and pursuing her desires and life. It’s a relationship that, until the events of the film, existed pretty conflict-free. Much of the complexity is within the sphere of protective love, it just enters the overbearing. But it’s not a bad relationship, not intentionally. It’s one of the dynamics that makes the film so relatable and engaging. It’s learning to let go as much as learning to break free.
9. Two Women (Dir. Vittorio De Sica, 1960)
What a classic. Sophia Loren is simply mesmerizing, a total queen as she tackles this harrowing depictions of a mother and daughter surviving in war-torn Italy. Following the bombing of Rome where they lived and ran a shop, Cesira (Loren) and her twelve year old daughter Rosetta who is a devoutly religious young girl, escape to the rural Ciociaria. Desperate to protect her daughter from the horrors of war, wishing to offer the girl stability though the people they meet, only to lose in the face of reality in the conflict of World War Two, Cesira is a mother who struggles to live up to her role. In the end the unforgivable offense committed against them robs the woman of anyway to truly provide
Mostly a study of wartime survival, it is also included in this list as what we finds is the unravelling of a mother and daughter relationship in the face of a tumultuous world. The aforementioned act separates them. We see a sexually proud woman robbed of her will, her choice, but she fights on because she must. It’s painful to see. Meanwhile we also see an innocent child robbed of her childhood. This is simply harrowing. The sexualisation of her daughter is something that is out of Cesira’s control. So in parallel to the chaos around them as war sweeps the nation, so we also see the crumbling of a once solid and loving relationship when physically and spiritually, there is little the mother can offer in comfort. Now the daughter is confused as to whom she is, numbed, detached, utterly traumatized; she has been robbed of her innocence and her faith in humanity. As events unfold in the story, we see Cesira losing sight of her daughter, she has no control in her future, she never had, but now the world has taken that form her too. It’s the plight of a mother trying to stay present for her daughter, but finding too many hurdles in which to embody that presence.
8. Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig, 2017)
You know what? In recent months I’ve heard some sad stuff around Lady Bird; people are treating it like an edgy, try-hard indie flick, that a certain sort of girl digs, a not-like-other-girls, quirky dramedy. Gosh, it all just downplays how powerfully integral it is to depictions family and youth on screen – and we need nostalgic traipses through the awkward antics of Teen-dom that have been captured though the lens of female filmmakers. We need a love story between a mother and daughter, breaking down the miscommunications, unconditional love and frictions that come with coming into your own. In fact, the decade was blessed for some beautiful depictions of girls growing up by female directors including The Diary of a Teenage Girl (Heller, 2015), Edge of Seventeen (Craig, 2016) and Book Smart (Wilde, 2019) and not a single one is a cookie cutter of the next. Lady Bird is a fantastic addition to these films.
We have all wanted to be edgy, different. This film realigns that. It paints self-named Lady bird as hero in her own story in which there is no room for any other players, how that unravels for her, and how utterly familiar it is to almost anyone who has been a teen. Set in the early 2000’s, through her final year of High School, Lady Bird desires more. From a working class family, she wants to be the star of the drama club, get into a prestigious school far from Sacramento, to the east coast where she can study and live like the pretentious writers she often references. Her mother thinks she’s a snob. Her best friends are pushed away as she seeks clout. She pursues romantic relationships and discovers just how lacklustre teenage boys can be. She has her head rammed all the way up her arse. But we love her for it. The world unravels before her, it’s not all it’s made out to be but in the end she always has her family. Maybe my inclusion of it on this list is really predictable, but it really is a beautiful portrayal of an authentic mother/daughter bond; mundane and honest as it is.
7. The Joy Luck Club (Dir. Wayne Wang, 1993)
This is actually a bold statement from me; I talk a lot about getting emotional at movies, and I do, but in the last year I actually began to cry less at things. Weird things set me off now (A specific incident in a Fruits Basket Season 2 re-watch really undid me in a show full of these moments where I managed a dry-eyed session), it’s hard to really break me especially if it’s something I have never seen before. Animation is also a pretty good contender for this, but live action has to work a hell of a lot harder. Maybe I’m getting a little emotionally constipated. Anyway, this movie broke that streak in me. It moved my little clogged heart. And I loved it. A little sappy, totally a product of the nineties, it doesn’t matter; it’s a story of scope, which grounds its viewer and wraps us in a warm hug at the same time. The diversity of the relationships in this film as we see the clashes through the generations is vast; it explores the role of the mother, sacrifice and loyalty in times of unpredictability and turmoil.
It’s a complicated story, one I can’t go too much into for fear of spoiling anything, adapted from the brilliant book of the same name by Amy Tan. The Joy Luck Club is a made up of four older women, Chinese immigrants now living in San Francisco who get together to play Mahjong and tell stories. These women have raised their daughters together, now adult and assimilated to American culture, their mother’s always there to remind them of their roots. Their pasts are revealed, along with the troubled lives of their daughters, shaped by the conflicts found in Chinese-American cross cultures, the pressures within the family and the burdens, anxieties and inadequacies that come with modern womanhood. At the centre of the film is June whose mother, once a member of the club, has passed away months before. She is about to embark on a journey to be reunited with her long lost sisters in China, believed to have died when her mother had to abandon them and all her possessions during the Japanese invasion. Yeah… it deals with some big stuff.
6. Now, Voyager (Dir. Irving Rapper, 1943)
Bette Davis is still one of the greatest actresses to ever grace the screen. She had range and star power that transcended many of her peers. A risk-taker, she played against character, was never afraid to look hideous for a role, and was a constant scene stealer; I love her. But in her turn in Now, Voyager, she manages a performance of far more subtly (considering the time and the melodrama I thrive off in Classic Hollywood movies). It’s also considered one of the most important American films made, and I certainly think its themes of finding yourself, confidence, love and independence still resonate strongly today.
Davis plays the plain, withdrawn Charlotte who is ruled by her cruel mother, an aristocrat who sees her youngest child as a burden after raising three sons before her. Bullied and berated daily, Charlotte lacks any self-confidence, coming apart at the seams under the pressure placed on her. Eventually she is sent to a sanatorium where she is treated before a nervous-breakdown follows and it is here, that she begins to flourish. Finally free, she finds the courage to go out on her own, even eventually finding love. When she returns to her mother’s side, the woman is horrified to find a new woman before her, one who can speak up for herself. The consequences however are severe. Charlotte’s journey is a devastating, yet empowering one but it takes cracks in her armour before she is able to make changes in her life.
5. Terms of Endearment (Dir. James L. Brooks, 1983)
It had to be included. There’s a reason it appears on lists like this, is the perfect sob fest to have with the fam, totally timeless. A sharp script, a brilliant cast including Debra Winger, Shirley MacLaine and my man Jack (Nicholson), I come back to it time again even though it completely wrecks that stoic persona I’m pretending I have. Very funny, very emotive, it’s pace and punch is impactful. Spanning thirty years in the life of a mother daughter, it examines the highs and lows of their tumultuous relationship as they experience love, heartache, motherhood and tragedy. It’s kind of like a melodramatic version of Lady Bird, Terms of Endearment is one of the best depictions of that unconditional devotion that can be found between mother s and daughters, despite all their differences, their conflicts.
Aurora, the widowed mother, is vain to no end and repressed as a product of her time, putting all of her focus into her raising her daughter and spurning any potential interest from suitors. Overwhelmed, daughter Emma doesn’t leave it too long before marrying a man her mother disapproves of, moving far way and having three children. Despite the rift it forms, they remain emotionally bonded, frequently speaking on the phone. Meanwhile, a retired astronaut moves in next door to Aurora and a wild romance ensues, as her daughter struggles with infidelity and financial difficulties within her own relationship. Aurora and Emma, they fight and make up over and over, yet they love each other so much. They love by accepting each other, by pushing each other's boundaries. They become more open as time goes on and the story captures the scope of that relationship over time.
4. Grey Gardens (Dir. Maysles Brothers, 1975)
A documentary now and one that is rather legendary. Spawning a cultural icon with the depiction of fashionista and philosopher, Little Edie, it’s interwoven itself into the zeitgeist. Endlessly entertaining, moving and bizarre it’s a glimpse into the world of two socialites, a mother and daughter, (both called Edie Beale) who seem to have become dependent on one another through circumstances both in and out of their control. Almost like forgotten relics, they allow the film crew into their world of poverty in their derelict East Hampton Mansion, once an opulent estate now lost to time.
Little Edie wanted to be a star; as to how she ended up moving back home is of endless debate between the two women who bicker ceaselessly, occasionally foul-mouthed, blunt or self-indulgent. Sometimes Big Edie, once a renowned singer, says that Little Edie chose to, Little Edie says that Mother needed her, could not have lived without her. There is a toxicity to their relationship that existed before their forced seclusion. Once rich, social darlings, their fall from grace is mysterious, impacted by war and general neglect, maybe even a little disillusionment; the house is riddled with stray cats, the attics infested with a family of raccoons – they feed these as well as the cats. The women exist in a handful of rooms, strewn with antiques and objects reminding one of their past lavishness. The house is a shadow of what it once was, and so are the women. They seem to love to put on a show, always the hostesses they once were. They’re lovable yet tragic, utterly endearing.
3. The Piano Teacher (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2001)
Man, this one is a pretty dark movie. My favourite Haneke film, it depicts the story of an unmarried piano teacher (played hypnotically by Isabelle Huppert), a woman who outwardly appears stern, severe, controlled and rather plain. However, she harbours deep-rooted, emotional and sexual deviancies, partaking in voyeuristic and paraphilic activities on her way home from work from the Vienna Conservatory. Living with her mother, she is watched and monitored, relentlessly interrogated when she takes longer to come home; they share a bed at night. Unable to revel in her fantasies, emotionally burdened by the woman, she soon captures the eye of a student with who she wishes to enter a sadomasochistic relationship with.
Sexual and emotional repression, the overbearing control of a woman who has never allowed her daughter to grow up and leave the nest in a traditional sense has probably been the cause for many to the teacher’s issues. She loathes herself, but possesses an obsessive control over her day-to-day life that is overbearing to her own students. She is isolated from peers; she has nowhere she can go. The lack of expression, despite being a musician herself, a woman who should be able to express herself at the piano instead is obsessed with rigidly matching the masters rather than using it as an outlet, or more accurately she probably can’t. She wants liberation through sex. The relationship with the mother is guilt-infused, twisted and possessive. She loves her mother, because it’s programmed into her, it’s that bond that comes from being birthed, the cause for dreadful resentment, it’s the only love she knows. Does her mother manipulate this? Of course. Their relationship is truly unsettling, it’s not explosive (not generally anyway, I mean the explosive moments in this film are few and far between, but shocking when they land), it’s real. It’s micro-manipulation, its possessiveness. Under surveillance by a mother, how is she ever going to be able to pursue even the mildest of fantasies, let alone the wildest? What is the end goal for the mother? Who knows? Probably control, to drag her daughter into miserable existence with her. Yet they still love.
2. Volver (Dir. Pedro Almodóvar, 2006)
Almodóvar has actually tackled the mother-daughter relationship in multiple films. In fact, he loves to depict motherhood, breaking it down portraying the good, the bad and the complicated. Some of his best include All About My Mother (1999), and Julieta (2016). For more recommendations of his work, check out my Top 15 Almodóvar films. But… the one that I think captures my favourite dynamic on screen is the brilliant melodrama, Volver. My goodness, this film; Almodóvar tells one of his funniest and moving stories. A great cast of women helm the film including Penelope Cruz and Carmen Maura. Returns, regrets and redemption, the solidarity of womanhood and ultimately forgiveness carry the story. It’s such a kind tale, warm and welcoming despite its premise.
A woman, Raimunda, must cover up the murder of her husband, committed by her daughter, Paula, in self-defence when the man attempted to rape her. She also must look after a neighbours restaurant and decides to hide the body in one of the freezers. Meanwhile, her sister, Sole, is visited by her mother who died years before in a fire, and kept secret from Raimunda. The relationship between Raimunda and her mother was estranged before the woman’s death; abuse in her childhood that went ignored by her led to the daughter leaving the small town where they lived. Many things had been left unsaid; time had changed much of what had been perceived as truth. The mother has come back with unfinished business, things are changing around their lives and it is time to confront the past in order to face the future. Its devastating undercurrent imbued with humour that grounds the story.
1. Autumn Sonata (Dir. Ingmar Bergman, 1978)
Years of trauma and resentment unfold in an evening as a daughter, Eva, is visited by her classical pianist mother, Charlotte, who has come in and out of her life since she was a child. Eva lives with her husband, a man some years older than her but who offers her a reliable figure even if their marriage is somewhat muted. Seven years have passed since she has last seen her mother and at first Eva is excited. However, it is not long before the old wounds reopen and her deep-rooted trauma and antipathy rise to the surface as Charlotte displays her over-bearing presence. Charlotte is soon shaken herself when she discovers that her other daughter, the physically impaired Helena, is living with Eva and her husband under her sisters devoted care.
Of course it was going to be this one. It topped my Top 15 Bergman List and it had to top this one when it comes to the most fascinating depictions of a mother and daughter on screen. The cruelties are so subtle, the neglect monumental in its flippancy. It unravels, infantilizes the poor daughter who becomes a hysterical, sobbing mess as she slips back into the time when her mother left her over and over again. The woman is not a monster; in fact, it would have been easier that way. But she’s a woman who cannot identify as a mother, who chooses to dispel the role in pursuit of her dreams and goals. If her life is fulfilling for her, she still returns to the daughters out of duty or some kind of guilt. I don’t think this film would be so harrowing to watch, so distressing if it were not for the amazing pairing off Ingrid Bergman and Liv Ullman. Such powerful actresses, they tear apart their characters embodying something so human, so relatable. I can feel the pleas, the fear, and the pain. It’s not easy viewing, it’s terribly sad. It’s real; it taps into something, a basis within the potential toxicity that can divide a parent and child; the strange rivalry, the silent challenges, the expectancy, the demands. Under lack of nurturing, Eva has been undone. What a life she would have had with a better mother, a kinder mother, a normal mother. These thoughts linger in the space between them, always left unanswerable.
Right, there you go. Some films to be enjoyed on Mother’s Day maybe if your after something a little messier, I hope I captured some variations in my selection to make for an interesting selection of recommendations. Hope you all enjoy and have a cracking day!