A-List: Best Movies About Motherhood
By J. Don Birnam
April 28, 2016

It's NOT that kind of MILF movie.

As we await with bated breath the beginning of the summer blockbuster season, we take a look at some of the best movies about motherhood ever made. This weekend’s release, the perhaps aptly named Mother’s Day, is another one of those ensemble rom-coms that looks terribly irresistible and assuredly disappointing. Movies about motherhood, of course, aren’t exactly novel - one might argue most movies at some level express the filmmakers’ anxieties about their relationships with their mothers. Today we will focus on those that focus on the challenges of a mother vis-à-vis the relationship with the child - send us your thoughts, if you dare, on Twitter.

Because the list is plentiful, I’ll try to narrow down the rules. I’m excluding Pedro Almodóvar films - he is overdue for an A-List anyway, and most if not all his movies, from All About My Mother to Volver, have powerful mother figures. I’m also excluding movies that feature single mothers in difficult roles, examples of which include A Place in the Heart and Mrs. Miniver. Those women are more aptly about womanhood, and less about motherhood as such. The same goes for great movies like Ordinary People and August: Osage County, which feel more about family ties than necessarily about motherhood alone.

Then, there are the easy rom-coms which do not really belong on this list - undoubtedly you are familiar with Jane Fonda’s Monster in Law and Julia Roberts’ Stepmom. Good movies, of course, but only deserving of honorable mentions.

Finally, we’ll disqualify other movies that are strong about mothers but that we have discussed in the past - from Sophie’s Choice when we talked about Meryl Streep movies, to The Manchurian Candidate when we discussed movies about politics.

All of those mentions aside, then, I will try to focus on movies that really are about mothers and some of the challenges that either they or their children face in dealing with them - Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho not included.

5. Heartbreakers (2001)

Where Stepmom and Monster In Law, or even The Family Stone are funny or touching movies about mothers, Sigourney Weaver’s Heartbreakers is truly outlandish and unique in the story of motherhood.

Angela, Weaver’s character, is not your typical mother - she does not sacrifice herself for her children like Greer Garson did in Mrs. Miniver or Sally Field decades later, and she does not face difficult choices like Streep’s Sophie did. No, Angela is a con artist, and she is teaching her daughter the trade - how to seduce men to steal their fortune.

Supported by a terrific cast that includes Anne Bancroft, Gene Hackman and Ray Liotta (but not, ahem, the forgettable Jennifer Love Hewitt), Sigourney gets the laughs as the mother who struggles to see her child grow up from under her wing and blossom into a temptress of her own.

Filled with ridiculous turns and outrageous behavior, Heartbreakers is not a movie with deep, emotional meaning about motherhood. It is simply an undeniably funny, infinitely rewatchable movie that leaves you wanting for more of the uniquely devilish Weaver. Oh, and, talk about a MILF!

4. Frozen River (2008)

Before she famously cursed during her Oscar-winning speech after triumphing for the over-acted performance in The Fighter, Melissa Leo made a small but loud entry into the scene with her portrayal of the struggling mother living near the Canadian border in Frozen River.

This movie, however, is unlike those I discarded for focusing simply on the struggling mother and womanhood. In Frozen River, Leo’s character encounters a mother who is arguably more desperate than her - a Native American woman threatened with expulsion from her reservation for the crimes she is committing in the name of being able to keep custody of the child she had with a white man.

Unforgiving and bleak as the tundra it’s centered around, Frozen River is nevertheless a moving portrayal of the lengths that mothers will go for their children. Few movies explore themes of poverty or First Nations like the unmistakably indie Frozen River does.

But it is not just the novelty of its themes that make this movie so great. It has its moments of suspense and twists, and undoubtedly gut-wrenching plot points. Overall, the movie is subtle about its motherhood theme, but the wily viewer will discover its ultimate point: the love for a mother’s children is powerful and it crosses both the generational divide that separates Leo and the Indian woman, as well as the cultural chasm between them.

3. Mildred Pierce (1945)

More in the wheelhouse of movies about the challenges of motherhood is the 1945 vehicle that won Joan Crawford her Oscar, the film noir adaptation of the James Cain psychological thriller.

Crawford stars as Mildred, a mother who goes through more on screen than any other mother figure I can imagine. Her first husband divorces her, her youngest daughter dies, her oldest daughter is a brat and is ashamed of her, and, as the movie opens, she is under interrogation on suspicion of murdering her second husband, who was trying to elope with her daughter anyway. And you thought you had a rough childhood.

What really makes this film unique in its way is how Crawford’s on screen presence buoys the dramatic narrative - the film is meant to be bleak while suspenseful, and Crawford’s visage and expressions are perfect for the role.

One could argue, of course, that the movie perpetuates old stereotypes about women - women who are alone struggle and must look for solace in men. I would say that an adaptation of a divorcing mother who then remarries without love is modern for its time.

The strongest point about the movie, of course, is the quintessential, not really unanswerable question about motherhood - how long could or should a mother go to protect her child? Mildred, of course, tries to protect her ungrateful daughter, the true culprit behind the murder of Mildred’s second husband, from prison. It is to no avail in this case, but the point remains: is that the ultimate sacrifice a mother could make? To break with morality and sacrifice her own life in the meanwhile?

I tend to shy away from foreign movies on the list, but the brilliant Korean film from 2009, Mother, explores this theme, arguably first exposed in film by Mildred Pierce. There, a mother investigates a murder that has been pinned on her son. Should the mother believe the son and/or seek to exonerate him regardless of guilt?

I will leave it at that for now because, as we shall see, we have not heard the last of mothers facing this choice.

2. Terms of Endearment (1983)

The Best Picture winner of 1983 is, unlike the discard Ordinary People, really about the relationship between a mother and her daughter.

While many movies, including last year’s Mia Madre and James White, explore the sadness that comes with losing one’s mother to old age or illness, it is relatively rarer the movie that explores a mother’s grief and anguish as the experiences the loss of a child. But Shirley MacLaine does this brilliantly, also in an Oscar winning turn, in Terms of Endearment.

Widowed and in late middle age, Aurora is a devoted mother to Emma, played by a stunning Debra Winger. Emma is all Aurora has and is devoted to, until Emma marries against her wishes a man who is clearly not good for her. At a temporary loss, Aurora devotes her life to dating her next door neighborhood, until Emma, divorced, returns to upset the apple cart - both with her personality and with the terminal illness that will consume them.

The movie is deeply emotional but not manipulatively so. The acting is stupendous, from Winger to MacLaine and Jack Nicholson, Aurora’s love interest in another Academy Award-winning role. And the story gives us precisely what we want in a movie that belongs on this list - motherly sacrifice, motherly suffering, and motherly understanding. Aurora is unflappably loyal and forgiving of her daughter. That is what mothers do.

What mothers do not normally do, of course, to bury their children. But this mother has to face that horrendous task, and the resulting emotional scarring will not soon be forgotten by any viewer of this beautiful film.

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)

But if you thought Mildred Pierce had it hard, then We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Criminally snubbed for her brilliant performance in this dark, dark tale, Tilda Swinton plays the suffering mother of a young boy who gives her trouble from the start. Literally.

From difficulties during her pregnancy and childbirth, Swinton’s character knows that there is something inherently wrong with Kevin. Oh, it’s not the trite and superficial story of Damian the anti-Christ. It is not Alien or even the story of the savior, like the mother in Terminator. It is simply the story of a bad, perhaps even evil seed, and how a woman grows to realize it - and what she does about it.

At every step, the old notions of motherhood in movies are tested - Kevin makes it harder and harder for Eva, his mother, to love him. But it is his final, his most devastating and most horrific act - done perhaps out of desire to obtain some sort of sick revenge against his mother’s acts of love “against” him - that will shock the viewer, and ultimately break Eva away from the mother you expect her to be in trite, Mildred Pierce movie fashion.

And it does not end there, for the suffering that Kevin inflicts on his mother lasts, naturally, far beyond the “simple” heinous crimes he commits. It scars her both emotionally and socially, almost physically and metaphorically. Because, regardless of whether she forgives the boy or not, regardless of whether she succumbs to the natural impulse to love the child no matter what, the harder, unforgiving question is: can she forgive herself, as a mother?

Happy early Mother’s Day!