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With 2010 films, it's Mother's Day

January 11, 2011|By Randee Dawn, Special to the Los Angeles Times

In Mike Leigh's "Another Year," Ruth Sheen plays Gerri, a compassionate therapist/mom/wife whose household flows with cheer, food and wine. But toward the end of the film, lonely colleague Mary steps out of line by flirting with Gerri's (much younger) son, then snipes at his new girlfriend. Gerri gives her a quiet but searing what-for.

The reaction to that scene has surprised Sheen. "Lots of people have said to me they thought Gerri was very unkind to Mary — because Mary was, in a sense, pathetic — but others said no, no, you kept it right," she says. "But a lot of people told me their opinion of her changed after that scene."

Gerri is many things in the movie, but in that scene she is most fiercely a mother — a fact that likely colors the reactions Sheen has fielded. Few mother roles in films are as well-drawn as Gerri's; they're often tightly circumscribed boxes containing smiles, hugs and reassurance … but little else. Watching one blossom into a full three dimensions, revealing unexpected depths of character, can seem off-putting but only because it proves a vibrant "mom" can be more than just a placeholder or symbol.

This year's Oscar season is turning that stereotype on its head. Along with Gerri, the multilayered mom list is extensive — including moms of one stripe or another in "The Fighter," "Made in Dagenham," "Animal Kingdom," "The Kids Are All Right," "Black Swan" and "Rabbit Hole." Collectively, they're a welcome departure from the stereotypical stock mother role.

"Mothers are often trivialized or sentimentalized in films," says Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, director of cinema studies at the University of Oregon and author of the upcoming "Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers." "We don't tell the stories of mothers very often; we're much more interested in subjects that are interesting to men."

Karlyn points to Oscar winners "American Beauty" and "Titanic" as examples of avoiding real characterizations of mothers: "There are two mothers in 'Beauty,'" she says. "One is a shrew and one is lobotomized. In 'Titanic,' Rose would rather go down with the ship and Leo DiCaprio than get on the lifeboat with her mom!"

There are any number of reasons why moms routinely get short shrift as characters, ranging from ageism to subtle misogyny to simple economics — as in the industry belief that too much focus on female characters may turn off big-spending male audiences and drive down box-office revenue.

"It's hard to make a character three-dimensional when you're writing a movie where someone is battling a terrorist who's married to a woman you see in two scenes," says David Lindsay-Abaire, "Rabbit Hole" screenwriter. "Those movies are written in such shorthand."

That means a film like "Kids," which features two moms, is a pleasant surprise, and emotions can run high among viewers. "I've had people say some scenes made them sob," says director Lisa Cholodenko. "And you think, 'Wow, these are big seminal moments in family life, and you rarely see them on screen this way.'"

"Sometimes mother roles are just token," says Jacki Weaver, who has reaped critical praise for her role as matriarch and crime boss Janine in "Animal Kingdom." "You can get lucky with the classics — I was just in 'Death of a Salesman' as the long-suffering Linda — but often these stories are being told by young people who haven't gotten enough experience to know there's more to mums than making apple pie and cleaning the kitchen."

Often, when a film does put a spotlight on a complicated mother who pursues goals outside the home, the characters are forced to choose between one or the other — family or their other passion. "The Fighter's" Alice is a vivid, complex character as both manager and mother to her boxer boys — but, ultimately, even she gets ousted from one of those roles.

"It's easy to forget Mom, blame her and put her in the background," says Melissa Leo, who plays Alice. "In our society, people have advanced, but we're still so male-centric and don't even recognize it."

Refreshingly, in "Dagenham," Rita (played by Sally Hawkins) receives nearly unconditional support from her husband as she dashes around England fighting for equal pay for women, leaving primary care of their children to him.

"It's lovely that her family is not shown as a noose around her neck," says Hawkins. "That can be a danger, especially if a script is written by a man — and it can change the way we see women and mothers in films."

That's a danger worth looking out for, says Karlyn. "In our culture right now, the family is in flux. If we simply shove motherhood off the screen, people will think about mothers in this limited or unfriendly way — so it matters tremendously. Movies matter and mothers matter. You need to get both of them together in a way that's a little more thoughtful."

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