A MOTHER’S DAY Dozen Watch List

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Scholars say that Mothers Day began in ancient Greece with the springtime tribute to the goddess Rhea, wife of Cronos and mother of several gods in the Greek pantheon. The more recent celebration of Mother’s Day in America began in 1870 with Julia Ward Howe’s “Appeal to womanhood, was a pacifist reaction to the carnage of the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. Howe wanted to marshall awareness of motherhood and mothering as a way of engaging women to work for peace. She later vehemently denounced the holiday she gave birth to because it became too commercial.

Today, Mothers day is one of America’s big sellers, with all generations of children scrambling to regale their moms with flowers and chocolates and fancy brunches and greeting cards. According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), Mother’s Day spending in the United States is expected to reach an all-time high of $35.7 billion this year. But aside from energizing the economy, Mothers’ Day offers an opportunity for some deep thinking about what motherhood means to us all. After all, we all have mothers who birthed us and many of us are mothers to the next generations of our species. That said, the mother-child relationship is universal and, as such, gives rise to as many individual situations and interpretations as there are people who are planted on Mother Earth.

Each of us millions of us has a different mother story to tell and the diversity of our stories is astonishing. Mothers’ Day as the commercial event it has become doesn’t look beyond sweet and sappy Hallmark moments, but if we discard that particular – and peculiar – point of view, we can recognize that not all experiences of motherhood are categorically Hallmark in nature. Now and throughout history, the motherhood experience and mothering circumstances have varied from blissful to absolutely horrific. Some women (and men, too) live to be loving mothers, others eschew motherhood, some are forced into motherhood because of prevailing convention or downright abuse.

We feel that meditating on the breadth of motherhood adds to the depth of Mothers’ Day celebrations. As female film critics — all of us are daughters, and most of us mothers, too — we recommend that our Mothers’ Day agendas include watching movies that reflect motherhood in all of its glory, eleation, inconvenience, challenges and dismay as a way to discover our own feelings towards motherhood and the way those feelings have impacted our lives. Our list of recommended films — all of which have been honored with AWFJ’s Movie of the week seal and all but two of which are femme-helmed — will engage you in thinking about your own notions of motherhood. You may just enjoy intaking the different stories these films impart, or you may feel like you’re walking on a philosopher’s path or have been seated on a psychiatrist’s couch — either way, we hope you will enjoy your personal version of Mothers’ Day. — Jennifer Merin


in writer/director A.V. Rockwell’s powerful drama A Thousand and One, Teyana Taylor is fiercely compelling as Inez, a mother with a complicated history that includes recent release from prison, who will do anything for her young son, Terry. That includes pulling him out of the foster system without permission (in other words, kidnapping him) and giving him a new name to protect him and their life together. Inez isn’t entirely sure what it means to be a mother to Terry, and in some ways she’s as childish as he is. But her love for and loyalty to him never waver. She’s skilled at styling hair and dreams of setting up her own business — and it’s clear that she has the kind of ambition necessary to make that happen. As the film follows Inez and Terry over more than a decade of moving around to avoid exposure of their tru identities and the kidnapping, it captures the highs and lows of their relationship and the bond that connects mother and son.


Set to a peppy, empowering soundtrack of Dolly Parton hits, director Anne Fletcher’s Dumplin’ is an appealing coming-of-age dramedy about a particularly rocky mother-daughter relationship between a plus-sized teen who confronts stereotypes and her beauty queen mother. Willowdean “Will” Dickson (Danielle Macdonald) loves her mom, Rosie (Jennifer Aniston), but they couldn’t be more different. Confronting the situation straight on, the teen, Willowdean, enters a small-town Texas pageant and seeks her mother’s support. A movie titled Dumplin’ could definitely go either way but, thanks to the appealing cast and feel-good message, this one is a winner. Despite the fact that mother Rosie is still obsessed with pageants, Willowdean is comfortable in her own skin, thanks to her late Aunt Lucy and supportive BFF Ellen. She’s content hanging out with Ellen, working at a local diner where there’s a boy who really likes her just as she is and listening to her idol, Dolly Parton. Watch the movie to find out whether she’s able to change her dynamic with her mother.


“Brave” is a word that gets thrown around a lot when it comes to acting, often when a performer — particularly a woman — dares to look unattractive on screen. For Sophie Hyde’s intimate dramedy Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, 60+ year-old Oscar-winner Emma Thompson boldly bares it all, physically and emotionally, literally and lovingly, for the first fully nude scene of her career. In the film, Thompson plays uptight Nancy Stokes, a widowed, retired school teacher who has, with resentment, played the role of loving wife and mother for her entire adult life. She’s tolerated her emotionally and sexually distant husband and taken care of children who don’t appreciate her and with whom she feels no connection. When her husband dies, she timidly decides to explore her own psyche and needs, including sexual pleasure. She books a hotel room and hires a much younger male escort, Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), to help her achieve her first orgasm.


Haunting, engrossing, mysterious, director Mathieu Amalric’s melancholy drama Hold Me Tight is never predictable. It will keep you guessing and hypothesizing until its final scenes. And thanks to Vicky Krieps’ magnetic performance as Clarisse, a conflicted French wife and mother who abruptly leaves her family early one morning (or does she?), it offers a poignant meditation on the nature of motherhood, memory and loss, identity and purpose. The story isn’t told in a linear way, and it’s often unclear what’s reality and what’s part of Clarisse’s imagination (or memory). But that confusion is exactly the point. As the “real” story gradually does come into focus, you realize that Amalric, Krieps, and the rest of the cast are working to show how devastating and disorienting it can be to be plagued by a mother’s doubt, regret, and wishful thinking.


It’s not often that a sharp-tongued, chain-smoking grandmother is the main character in a movie. Tsai Chin’s gutsy, riveting performance as the acerbic, willful, chain-smoking titular character, Sasie Sealy’s tight script and admirable direction, a stellar ensemble and a strong sense of place make Lucky Grandma a sure winner. Pinpointing an auspicious day for her good luck, Grandma heads to an Atlantic City casino. Everything goes her way until it doesn’t. She’s dismayed to be heading home empty-handed, but her seatmate on the bus dies unexpectedly, and his bag full of cash literally falls into her lap. What seems like an act of providence turns out to be much more complicated: The money belongs to a New York City gang, and they want it back. Grandma has to face down danger with no more than a frying pan and her wits to defend herself, her adult children and their progeny. Through humorous plot twists, Grandma’s eventual understanding that it’s OK if your good luck comes in the form of friends and family, rather than cold, hard cash.


In a time when too much of the world is very belatedly waking up to the significance of Juneteenth — the holiday marking the day in 1865 when enslaved Black people in Texas finally learned of Abraham Lincoln’s 1862 Emancipation Proclamation — Channing Godfrey Peoples’ feature debut, the coming-of-age drama Miss Juneteenth, offers a thoughtful, relevant glimpse inside Black life in Texas more than 150 years after that momentous day. A beautiful and enriching cinematic experience, the film is bursting with a gorgeous sense of place and character the likes of which are rarer onscreen than they should be. Nicole Beharie brings a strength and a weariness to Turquoise Jones, a former beauty queen and single mom trying to make a better life for her teen daughter. Turquoise has spent her life looking at the pageant as the symbol of the life she should have led, while Kai sees it as everything she knows she doesn’t want for herself. As Turquoise and Kai move toward a better understanding of each other, they learn that there are different ways to define success — and that they value each other’s perspective on what it means to be Black women. Ultimately, though, the Miss Juneteenth pageant helps them find common ground, and the film creates greater awareness about the significance of the Juneteenth holiday. And, that is very worth celebrating.


Jennifer Lopez takes the concept of the “mama bear” and ratchets it up several notches to “raging grizzly mom” in Niki Caro’s tense action thriller The Mother. Lopez’s unnamed sniper/assassin mows down bad guys without flinching — or remorse — as she puts everything on the line to save the daughter she reluctantly gave up at birth to protect her from the evildoers who will stop at nothing to wreak revenge against her. they know that they can get to her through 12-year-old Zoe, who’s been living safely with a foster family while Lopez been living off the grid, staying sharp and making sure she’s ready when the worst finally happens. The Mother isn’t the first thriller about a hardened killer made vulnerable by their relationship with a child Nor is it the first about a parent with impossibly high expectations training their child in lethal skills amid the frozen wilderness. But it’s the first adult action movie directed by New Zealander Niki Caro (based on a screenplay by Andrea Berloff and Misha Green, working with Peter Craig from a story by Green). And it was produced by Lopez, who is unquestionably the center of the movie and is in full kick-ass mode. In other words, it’s got some pretty solid feminist bona fides.


Pedro Almodovar is no stranger to telling compelling stories about complex women, from Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown to All About My Mother to Volver and more. His streak continues with Parallel Mothers, an emotional drama about connection, coincidence, and the ties that bind us. Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit star as two women whose lives are irrevocably entwined after they give birth in the same hospital on the same day. Janis (Cruz) is a successful Spanish photographer whose affair leads to an unexpected but welcome pregnancy. While she’s in labor, she meets the much younger Ana (Smit), who’s much less excited about the prospect of impending single motherhood — and whose own mother, Teresa (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), hasn’t exactly been a model parent. Janis and Ana both welcome daughters and then go their separate ways, though Janis tells Ana she’s welcome to reach out anytime. As time passes, the relationship between the two mothers isn’t an easy one, but it’s one that proves essential to both of them, and the way they negotiate it makes for one of Almodovar’s most satisfying movies to date.


A strong-willed and very conventional Persian mother and her independent lesbian daughter butt heads but ultimately gain a greater understanding of each other in filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’ semi-autobiographical dramedy The Persian Version. Switching between narrators and perspectives and jumping back and forth in time between the past and the present to reveal key moments in both women’s lives, the film creatively explores tensions connected to cultural conflict and family relationships. Underlying the plot’s twists and turns (and there are some good ones!) is Keshavarz’ loving affection for and exasperation with the traditions and customs that come with being Iranian-American. This isn’t the first movie to delve into the clash between immigrants and their first-generation children — and it won’t be the last — but Keshavarz’ willingness to experiment with storytelling techniques keeps things fresh and interesting, and the main characters are well-drawn and engaging. Niousha Noor and Layla Mohammadi as mother and daughter, respectively, give particularly rich performances. Their mother-daughter dynamic is convincing and totally relatable.


Quietly emotional and tenderly sincere, Petite Maman is a poignant tale about loss, connection, and growing up. Blending gentle fantasy elements with grounded, naturalistic performances, writer-director Céline Sciamma tells the story of 8-year-old Nelly, whose parents take her with them to clear out her mother’s childhood home after the death of her beloved grandmother. To her surprise, she finds much more waiting for her there than her mother’s old books and playthings. Left to entertain herself while her parents — first, both of them, and then just her father, after her mother abruptly departs — work on going through her grandmother’s things, Nelly discovers an old hut made out of sticks that her mother built as a child. And then she meets a little girl just her own age, who looks exactly like her and lives in a home that seems extremely familiar. Viewers understand before Nelly does that this other girl, Marion (Ganz’ twin, Gabrielle), is Nelly’s mother as a child, and the two have somehow connected across time.


Trauma and abuse fuel a Persian woman’s determination to change her life — and that of her young daughter — in writer/director Noora Niasari’s compelling feature drama debut. Thanks to Niasari’s sensitive script and empathetic direction and to star Zar Amir Ebrahimi’s excellent performance, the film is likely to engender rage about misogynistic traditions and hope for the possibility of change, transformation, and renewal. Based partially on Niasari’s experiences as a child, Shayda follows the title character (Ebrahimi) as she and her 6-year-old daughter, Mona (Selina Zahednia), take refuge from Shayda’s husband/Mona’s father, Hossein (Osamah Sami), in an Australian women’s shelter. Far from her native Iran and feeling trapped by both cultural expectations and her own fears, Shayda still finds ways to honor her heritage — specifically, by celebrating Nowruz, the Persian new year. And as she shares the painful details of her history with Hossein with those who want to help her successfully divorce him, it seems that perhaps she and Mona can truly be free from him. but the court grants him visitation rights until the case is settled. Shayda’s resolve to stand up for her rights and protect her daughter is challenged at every turn, but she persists. She slowly begins to believe that she deserves to find happiness by making her own choices, whether that means going dancing with friends in a sparkly dress or striking up a conversation with someone new and interesting. She doesn’t know for certain what her future holds, but she knows that she and Mona are entitled to freedom and joy.


Women of all shapes and sizes come together in a traditional Estonian sauna to sweat out their pain and fear in filmmaker Anna Hints’ meditative documentary Smoke Sauna Sisterhood. As the steam swirls around them, the women tell their stories, sharing their extremely personal experiences of joy and sorrow, trauma and triumph, sex and motherhood. In between sessions filmed inside the sauna, Hints shares scenes of how the sauna is prepared and how the women move between the heat of its protective interior and the cold, refreshing world outside. There’s music, singing, and eating; babies are nurtured, and smiles are shared. But it’s inside the special, sacred space of the sauna that the women are most themselves. They accept one another without reservation or judgment, forming a sisterhood in the truest sense of the word. Underlying everything is an exploration of the diverse notions and realities of what it means to be a woman — and how essential it is for women to support one another. The women in Smoke Sauna Sisterhood aren’t identified by name; in fact, their faces are shown far less often than the rest of their bodies are. Hints’ camera dreamily, lovingly showcases bare breasts, stomachs, thighs, bottoms, arms, and legs; sometimes it’s difficult to tell where one woman’s body stops and another one begins. And that’s very much part of the film’s point. Because the experiences the sauna-goers describe are those faced by all women, everywhere: The pain of assault, loss, and illness; the emotional baggage of family relationships; the thrill of finding genuine love. The images and the personal stories told one by one with everyone’s loving support suggest that we are all mothers to each other.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).