A new vision of motherhood defines a crop of contemporary films

THE LOST DAUGHTER. OLIVIA COLMAN as LEDA. CR: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

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Olivia Colman as a haunted matriarch in "The Lost Daughter." Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

2022 may mark the dawn of the unconventional movie mother, filled with doubt, regret, pathos and anxiety.

The mother is an archetype so ingrained in our psyches we think we know her through and through. She’s nurturing, giving, compassionate and selfless.

The typical Hollywood mother suppresses her own needs and desires for the good of her children. She’s the beatific Ma Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath” or the automaton June Cleaver from “Leave it to Beaver.” In reality, the long suffering mother is more likely an overburdened service worker trying to navigate COVID-19, child-rearing and wage earning in an America where support for our most cherished icon is, paradoxically, scant.

We tend to applaud moms in theory. But in reality? Not so much. Without the support of powerful lobbyists, mothers find themselves perpetually shortchanged, especially when it comes to social policies on day care, maternal leave and reproductive rights.

In 2021 and the early days of 2022, films like “Lamb,” “Parallel Mothers,” “Petite Maman,” “The Power of the Dog,” “Spencer” and “The Lost Daughter” feature a bevy of strange, unsettling and complex mothers who challenge maternal business as usual.

Perhaps because our appreciation for mothering — its difficulty and crushing responsibilities — has been newly reawakened during COVID-19, it would appear that cinema is ready to depict the depths of motherhood that lie beneath the sainted ideal.

On HBO’s “And Just Like That” Cynthia Nixon plays a mother sometimes resentful of mothering a teenager obnoxiously flaunting his sex life; while the Netflix series “Maid” co-stars Andie MacDowell as a neglectful, endearingly broken mom and grandmother. It’s almost liberating to see a mother presented as so damaged, so skilled at poor decision-making and yet so vulnerable and sympathetic.

Who are these odd often unrecognizable creatures, defined by strange, internal drives, sometimes devoid of the nurture gene, drunken and insecure or unnervingly, overbearingly attached to their offspring?

New York magazine has dubbed this recent crop of movie moms “sad moms.” But those of us who occupy this realm know that sadness, loneliness, frustration all come with the territory, even if we think we invented it and our own mothers and grandmothers performed the same role with uncomplicated gusto.

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Kirsten Dunst is an unhappy mother in director Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog." Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

THE POWER OF THE DOG : KIRSTEN DUNST as ROSE GORDON in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

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Kirsten Dunst is an unhappy mother in director Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog." Courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

Credit: KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

In “The Power of the Dog” Kirsten Dunst is a messy mama who spends her days sneaking swigs of whisky, bedridden and pickling in shame, way out of her league in her new, posh marriage. Though it’s typically discussed as a film about toxic masculinity “The Power of the Dog” could just as easily be an extended riff on a maternal anxiety so profound that the woman’s son must run interference between his mother and the world.

Not surprisingly, a sea change occurs in how motherhood is represented when female producers, directors and writers are steering the ship and want to delve deeper than the classic mama archetype. That’s certainly the case in the deeply affecting fantasy “Petite Maman” about the relationships between three generations of women. Like so many of French director Celine Sciamma’s films, “Petite Maman’s” power comes from its shocking attentiveness to the intensity of female friendship, love and desire, ideas that have tended to take a back seat to male relationships in film history.

And in a genuine break from tradition, these unconventional movie moms appear to have an inner life beyond the narrow parameters of mothering.

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Penelope Cruz stars as a single mother in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Credit: Handout

Penelope Cruz stars as a single mother in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers."
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Credit: Handout

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Penelope Cruz stars as a single mother in Spanish director Pedro Almodovar's "Parallel Mothers." Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s latest film, the gorgeous, soulful melodrama “Parallel Mothers” exemplifies this new vision of mothers as simultaneously nurturing and committed to their own drives and desires. Penelope Cruz stars as Janis, a single mother in Madrid balancing a new baby and a career as a photographer. Janis never once expresses doubt about being an incomplete or bad mother because of her various passions. In fact — shocker! — she relishes a return to work. Maybe it takes a European film and a director as attuned to female complexity as Almodovar to remind us that boundless love for a child doesn’t cancel out every other ambition when American films seem to ask women to pick and choose.

In Almodovar’s hands mothering is a powerful life force not limited to one’s biological offspring. Janis is a mother to the third power. She tends to her own newborn but also to her young maternity ward roommate Ana (Milena Smit), her parallel mother. But Janis is also a mother to the community in the rural Spanish village of her birth. She is engaged in a passionate mission to exhume the mass grave containing neighbors and loved ones killed in the Spanish Civil War. Motherhood in “Parallel Mothers” is multifaceted and layered. But the love is real — it blossoms like a fierce, transformative thing.

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Jessie Buckley stars in flashbacks as the troubled young mother Leda, in "The Lost Daughter." Courtesy of Yannis Drakoulidid/Netflix

Credit: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

THE LOST DAUGHTER. JESSIE BUCKLEY as YOUNG LEDA. CR. YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

Credit: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

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Jessie Buckley stars in flashbacks as the troubled young mother Leda, in "The Lost Daughter." Courtesy of Yannis Drakoulidid/Netflix

Credit: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

Credit: YANNIS DRAKOULIDIS/NETFLIX

A favorite on many critics groups’ best 2021 film list, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first directorial effort “The Lost Daughter” is another maternal melodrama featuring a host of unorthodox matriarchs. The film flashes back and forth between scenes of middle-aged professor Leda (Olivia Coleman) vacationing on a Greek island and her memories of her younger self (Jessie Buckley) during difficult, unsatisfying early days trying to juggle her academic career and two young, often brutally demanding daughters. Those memories come flooding back as every day at the beach she observes a young mother (Dakota Johnson) also grappling with her needy, clingy young daughter. It’s an exceedingly honest treatment of the suffocating dimensions to motherhood rarely addressed in film.

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Dakota Johnson stars as a stressed young mother in "The Lost Daughter." Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

THE LOST DAUGHTER. (L-R) DAKOTA JOHNSON as NINA, ATHENA MARTIN as ELENA. CR: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

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Dakota Johnson stars as a stressed young mother in "The Lost Daughter." Courtesy of Netflix

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX

In the fascinatingly creepy Icelandic film “Lamb” motherhood is mercenary and unsettling, a battle of wills between a ewe who won’t stop bleating for her stolen lamb and the farmer (Noomi Rapace) who has adopted the baby as her own. Rapace offers both madonna-like bottomless love for her sheep-baby and nerves of steel rage when her dominance is questioned.

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Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace star as parents living in remote Iceland who adopt a lamb as their own in the horror fantasy "Lamb." Courtesy of A24

Credit: Handout

Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace star as parents living in remote Iceland who adopt a lamb as their own in the horror fantasy "Lamb."
Courtesy of A24

Credit: Handout

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Hilmir Snær Guðnason and Noomi Rapace star as parents living in remote Iceland who adopt a lamb as their own in the horror fantasy "Lamb." Courtesy of A24

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Perhaps the most unconventional entry in these filmic contemplations of motherhood, “Lamb” delves into the twin poles of mothering — gentle and nurturing or homicidal and scary.

“Lamb” in the most unnerving treatise of all, also dares to ask who gets to claim the mantle of motherhood. Animal advocacy that often makes its non-human cast as compelling as its upright actors, “Lamb” asks whether mothering is strictly human or the right of animals too.


WHERE TO WATCH

“Parallel Mothers,” at AMC Phipps Plaza 14 in Atlanta

“Lamb,” streaming on Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play

“The Lost Daughter” and “The Power of the Dog,” streaming on Netflix.

“Petite Maman,” no opening date in Atlanta

“Spencer,” streaming on Apple TV, YouTube, Prime Video