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Hollywood Loves a Monstrous Mommy. Can It Do Her Justice?

The urge to flee is in the air. “Scenes From a Marriage,” Hagai Levi’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic mini-series, shows a mother and breadwinner, Mira, played by Jessica Chastain, as she takes a temporary assignment in Israel, along with a lover. She is the mother as philanderer and absentee. Mira tells her husband, Jonathan, played by Oscar Isaac, that she will fly in biweekly to see their young daughter, justifying her plan with a note of hysteria in her voice: “Men do it all the time and then, you know, it’s not really a big deal.” Unlike Gyllenhaal’s, Levi’s representation of caregiving is gestural, the child almost always in bed, a suspiciously good sleeper. And unlike Leda, Mira doesn’t make the clean break. What is interesting about the series, stylish and very sexy, is how Mira does manage to live a bit like a man, primarily because of her co-parent, a man who explicitly loves caregiving, and the fact that there’s enough money to ease the difficulty. It’s a fantasy of another kind.

A mother leaves in Mike Mills’s new film, “C’mon C’mon,” because her family obligations require it. Mills’s film focuses on the other side of maternal absence: the child, and the person who cares for the child. Viv, played by Gaby Hoffmann, lives separately from her co-parent, who has bipolar disorder, but is obligated to help him through a psychiatric crisis. Joaquin Phoenix plays her brother Johnny, a “This American Life”-style radio host, who volunteers to watch her 9-year-old son, Jesse, while she is away. This is Uncle Johnny’s first rodeo, and he receives parenting instructions from Viv over the phone. The film shows us, mostly through these conversations, that Viv is an involved, present and very real mother (“I [expletive] hate it sometimes,” she tells Johnny, before telling him that he needs to feed Jesse some protein). Upon the movie’s release, I read male critics respectively describe Jesse as “a handful,” his mother as “indulgent.” And yet the movie shows behavior that is fairly standard in terms of child rearing. We see Jesse running away from his uncle in the drugstore and on the street, refusing sleep, rejecting his noodles in favor of ice cream. On the phone with his sister, Johnny laments his inability to control the little boy. “Welcome to my [expletive] life,” she tells him. “Nobody knows what they’re doing with these kids. You just have to keep doing it.”

“C’mon C’mon,” black and white and a bit slow compared with the frenetic sensuality of “The Lost Daughter,” mirrors some of its portrayals: It is, in part, about how hard it is to take care of a small person. In contrast to Leda and Mira, Viv represents a perhaps more common version of the absent mother, one who is gone simply because she has to take care of something else. It’s not quite wish fulfillment — Viv has her hands full caring for Jesse’s dad, and she is still phone-coaching Johnny through his babysitting crises — but the day-to-day stuff is, for once, not her problem. I noted with interest Johnny’s recruitment of another colleague as an on-site babysitter, and Johnny’s female co-worker needling him about putting off work.

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