Nuanced Visions of Motherhood in ’20th Century Women’, ‘Mommy’ and ‘Lion’

The complexity of womanhood and motherhood and the connection between them is still an ongoing debate in our society. No one bothers to ask if a woman wants to be a mother or a wife, they are trained and assumed to take up those roles from day one; with baby dolls that need to be taken care of, and mini kitchens for them to practice their cooking in order to become perfect little wives.

Even in the movies, they are the angels in the house. Their foremost priority is either their children or husbands. The Housewife archetype is passive, powerless, appealing, and willing to give up her personality to make peace. However, movies like 20th Century Women, Mommy, and Lion don’t hesitate to show the emotions that every mother has gone through in their life at some point. We get to see mothers stepping out of their role as a silent benefactor and show the real struggles of upbringing a child with or without a father figure.

Mike Mills’ semi-autobiographical movie, 20th Century Women, focuses on the dynamic between a mother and adolescent son. Jaime (Lucas Jade Zumann) is a young kid coming of age in late 70s Santa Barbara, and is being raised by a big, makeshift family of women. Seeing three women shaping his life while also dealing with their own lives captures the emotional messiness of womanhood from an outside perspective. Dorothea (Annette Bening), feeling increasingly pushed away from her son’s life, asks for help from two women; Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a photographer who rents the neighbouring room, and Julie (Elle Fanning), whom Jaime has a crush on.

Abbie and Julie takes their responsibilities seriously as Jaime quickly gets involved in their lives and starts to share their hopes, dreams, and beliefs. Julie talks about her regrets and disappointments from the sexual front and allows him to express himself freely while cuddling at night. Abbie, on the other hand, mostly educates him on womanhood, feminism and the women’s body. The radical feminist books she gives him ,“Our Bodies, Ourselves”, and “Sisterhood Is Powerful” open the eyes of the adolescent boy. He becomes very conscious of how he treats women and listens to their needs even when they’re not asking for it. He keeps Abbie company at her doctor appointments because he doesn’t want her to feel lonely during her fight with cervical cancer.

Dorothea, on the other hand, is complex as ever. She’s quite open-minded for someone adapting to the new 70s generation as a woman in her mid-50s. But can also get annoyed by the menstruation talk at a family dinner. She has her own rights and wrongs and she has a hard time accepting new forms. Nevertheless, her unconditional love for her son pushes her to exceed her limits thus she can fully apprehend what it means to be his age again. She tries to bond with him by listening to the punk rock genre he’s obsessed with, not rolling her eyes at his long talks of feminism and going to punk clubs. But at the end, she comes in terms with the sappy truth, her son will always be by her side but she’ll “never get to see him out in the world as a person.”

In Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, in a dystopian future where you can hospitalise your children who don’t behave, Die, short for Diane (Anne Dorval), gets a call from the state care facility in which her son is in. He is kicked out after attempting to set its cafeteria on fire. Diane is a tattooed, free soul who is now left to deal with the consequences of her son’s libidinous and blazing impulses. Hardly restrained by medications, Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), leads every fight he has with his mother to the point of violence which makes it difficult for Diane to come to grips with him. At one point after their rough fight, the mysterious neighbour, Kyla (Suzanne Clément), decides to be involved in their lives. The fast-paced lifestyle of the mother and son is balanced by this shy woman who wondrously becomes the teacher of Steve.

To celebrate their strange friendship, Steve puts on Céline Dion’s “On ne change pas” and starts dancing while they’re having a dinner. With Steve carelessly swaying and Diane successfully teasing Kyla to get her loosen up a little finally pays off. Seeing Kyla join them and fully become a member of the family really gives the hope that everything could work out for these three.

But nothing is picture perfect. Diane barely makes ends meet even with the money she earns as a house cleaner and Steve still gives in to his anger most of the time. Steve’s resistance to Diane’s affection makes it hard for them to co-exist because neither the son nor the mother seems to know where the line is. They both fight hard to overcome their issues together like a normal family, but they fail with every chance they get.

The dream sequence in which Dolan chooses Einaudi’s melodramatic “Experience” to emotionally manipulate the audience, Diane shares the dreams she has for her son. He goes to college, finds a girl, has a child of his own, and gets married while both his mother and Kyla are there to share his happiness. With the camera ratio shifting, it’s clear that it’s too good to be true but one can’t help but wish for this to be the last act of the film. However, what sums up the actual finale is what Diana foreshadowed in one of her dialogues: “Loving people doesn’t save them. Love has no say.”

On the other hand, Lion is about an Indian boy that ends up being separated from his family, getting adopted, and struggling with who he is. Though the movie is mostly focused on Saroo’s (Dev Patel) harrowing journey and his search for his origin, it also shows how white mothers and women of colour mothers differ in raising a child.

In 1986 India, the 5 year-old boy Saroo (Sunny Pawar) lives a very poor but joyful life with his mother Kamla, his older brother Guddu, and his younger sister Shekila. His widowed mother has to carry a night shift to be able to afford having a roof over their head. One night, Guddu takes Saroo with him to the train station and tells him to stay put until he gets back from begging for money. The misery starts here. He hops on a train hoping to get back home but finds himself even further from home— in an another region. Although the movie was reduced from any political opinions, it is obvious without being said that Indian people, at that time, were struggling. The language differs in each region which makes it difficult to unite as a nation, women (even children) have to find different solutions to make a living, there are potential abusers wandering around everywhere, making it so you can’t trust anybody but yourself. Saroo gets lost in this foreign land and faces almost everything a child should never go through.

Now without any hope of going back home, he gets adopted by an extraordinary Australian couple. His new mother, Sue, is willing to do anything for him; she knows how hard it is for him both to accept her as a mother and to get adapted into a new culture, so she’s patient with him. She doesn’t hesitate to show her growing love for him and support him in everything he does. The reason why the portrayal of Sue Brierley is so emotional and moving is because Nicole Kidman is also an adoptive mother of two who fought the same battles Sue had. Even after Saroo confesses that he’d been trying to unfold the mystery of his past, she doesn’t react the way he expects her to. She hopes for him to find his true self and also his biological mother.

Despite a rather slow-moving second part, the reality of cultural mixing and identity within the told era is well portrayed in the first encounter of Saroo and his mother after 25 years. She still lives in the same village most likely with little income whereas Saroo is now an educated man raised by a wealthy family. In spite of the economical differences between the two families, both of the mothers are impacted severely by a single event that caused a lifetime of struggle.

Even though the notion of separating motherhood into just ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is starting to fade, we still have a long way to go to accept mothers as also human beings. There is no set moral way to raise a child, especially when you’re struggling with the reality of motherhood. It’s not like in the fairytales; they do make mistakes but they also learn to take make a lesson from it. With the help of movies like the ones mentioned above, we get to understand the mindsets of mothers, both for their own changing personas as they tackle each new problem and their developing child. No one is perfect but at the end of the day, no one can strip them of their title.


by Deren Akin

Deren is an American Culture and Literature student at Ege University. She’s tired of getting sarcastic questions about the “American Culture” part of her studies. Her comfort movies include Little Miss Sunshine, Up! and Love, Rosie. You can find her on Twitter @dereneakin and letterboxd @derenakn

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