Streaming: the best movies about motherhood | dramatic movies

WWe tend to talk a little too lightly about female movie stars after a certain age being consigned to “mother roles”: blandly sympathetic background figures who appear only to tease or nurture when needed. “Mother” shouldn’t be synonymous with mainstream cinema’s lazier, more ageless, less dimensional instincts when it comes to female characterization; the best movies about motherhood treat it as a state of being, not just a balm for others.

Many of the so-called “women pictures” of Hollywood’s golden age revolved around complex and conflicted portrayals of motherhood. King Vidor’s excellent 1937 version of Stella Dallas (Amazon Prime Video) is the sobbing mother-daughter to end them all, buoyed by Barbara Stanwyck’s heartbreaking performance as a working-class woman who gives up her daughter to secure a better life. Twenty-two years later, matching themes of self-sacrifice and class subversion merge with surprisingly keen racial politics in Douglas Sirk’s magnificent book. imitation of lifein which a white woman and her black maid are linked by difficult relationships with their respective daughters.

‘Mother and Daughter Cry to End Them All’: Barbara Stanwyck and Anne Shirley in Stella Dallas (1937). alamy

In 1946, Joan Crawford won an Academy Award for one of the most enduring portrayals of Hollywood single motherhood, Mildred Pierce. The title character, facing the challenges of self-employed entrepreneurship and a toxic, ungrateful daughter, is presented as a noble bastion of female resilience; becomes an unnerving double feature with Crawford’s riveting and cult biopic. Dear Mom (1981), in which the screen diva’s supposed litany of maternal abuse is indelibly presented.

As a widowed shopkeeper protecting her daughter from the brutality of World War II, another Academy Award winner, Sophia Loren, becomes a virtual monument to maternal suffering in Vittorio De Sica’s film. Two women (1960): Every defiant pose or tense, anguished expression is filmed in the manner of a religious icon. In the 1970s, single mom survival stories could take on a looser, more playful form, as in Martin Scorsese’s lovely and underrated film. Alice doesn’t live here anymoreilluminated by the warm and vivid of Ellen Burstyn as a widow wandering America in search of a better life for her son, but not without regard for her own desires and pleasures.

The quintessential 1980s mom movie, James L Brooks’ Academy Award-winning hit Ties of Endearment, played it both ways, blending the tear-filled, vintage drama of a feuding mother and daughter with a gleefully titillating celebration of midlife libido: Shirley MacLaine made it all work. The Tremendous by Pedro Almodóvar All about my mother (1999), meanwhile, pondered what is to be done with maternal care and instincts after a child is lost, finding a new and tangled queer community for Cecilia Roth’s bereaved nurse to heal from.

Annette Bening with Lucas Jade Zumann in Women of the 20th Century.
‘Never better’: Annette Bening, with Lucas Jade Zumann, in 20th Century Women. alamy

Almodóvar dedicated his film to “all women who want to be mothers”, including his own; other filmmakers honored their mothers with more specifically personalized portraits. Greta Gerwig poured her own teenage experience into her wonderful Lady Bird (2017), a bittersweet study of a recalcitrant teenager and her frazzled mother working to regain a lost mutual understanding. From the same year, Mike Mills’ affectionate and affectionate 20th century women reflects on her upbringing by an independent mother (an Annette Bening never better) spanning different waves of feminism. Chantal Akerman, for her part, directly documented her relationship with her mother through the latter’s letters in her documentary contest news from home (1977; BFI player). We never see the older woman, but her words, read over uneasy images of the filmmaker’s adopted home in New York, etch the intimacy of separation.

Recently, more thorny and tumultuous views of motherhood have become normalized, as in Xavier Dolan’s bruises. mommy (2014), which investigates the invisible division between love and hate in a mother’s relationship with her agitated child, or in Lynne Ramsay’s gut punch We need to talk about Kevin (2011), which responds to the fear of all future parents that they will never be able to bond with their children.

Regina Williams sitting on a bus a few rows behind Andrew Bleechingington, who plays her son, in Life and Nothing More.
‘Motherly duty’: Regina Williams (centre) and Andrew Bleechington (front, right) in Life and Nothing More. alamy

The psychologically complex of Maggie Gyllenhaal The Lost Daughter (2011; Netflix) dared to sympathize with a mother who only finds herself when she leaves her children. Bong Joon-ho’s 2009 wild noir Mother (currently free on ITVX), meanwhile, questions the extremes of maternal loyalty as a mother struggles to free her son from a murder charge. And finally, the criminal investigation of Antonio Méndez Esparza life and nothing else (2017; Amazon Prime) offers one of the great modern portraits of maternal duty in the face of social and economic repression, as its protagonist (an astonishing Regina Williams) negotiates the struggles of care and self-care with a minimum wage. “Mom roles” have never been more important.

All titles are available for rent on multiple platforms unless otherwise specified.

Also new on streaming and DVD

BFI Flare 2023
(BFI player)
Britain’s leading LGBTQ film festival has returned to a predominantly in-person edition, but for those unable to attend, a vibrant range of shorts from this year’s program are available to stream for free, while a selection of features from past Flare editions is available to subscribers.

empire of light
A curious nostalgic piece from director Sam Mendes, this portrayal of damaged souls connecting in a seaside palace in 1980s Britain feels like a multiplex full of stories rolled into one: an interracial romance from May to December, a harrowing study of schizophrenia, a sparkling paean to movie magic. It’s sincere, but clumsy.

Olivia Colman in Empire of Light.
Olivia Colman in Empire of Light. Moviestore/ Rex/ Shutterstock

(Cinema from Heaven)
An on-screen return to Raymond Chandler’s iconic Philip Marlowe sports shoe was a welcome idea on paper. Sadly, Neil Jordan’s Misguided Mystery Based on the John Banville Novel The blonde with black eyesit’s a hollow pastiche that misses almost nothing, from the offbeat anachronisms of the dialogue to Liam Neeson’s increasingly violent turn in the lead.

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