May is the month we celebrate mothers. A mother’s selfless love for her child is a cherished theme in poetry, literature and truly dreadful greeting cards. But what if mommy dearest isn’t the paragon of devotion and self-sacrifice we love to put on a pedestal? What if mummy is difficult, eccentric or even, heaven forbid, a criminal? These compelling documentaries explore the complex relationship between mothers and daughters.
Mothers and daughters, it’s complicated, right? Especially when your elderly mother is still telling you to get a nose job, straighten your hair and find a man. Documentarian Gayle Kirschenbaum wanted to forgive her mother Mildred, an acerbic outspoken woman, for the wounds of her childhood. But she found it difficult to engage her emotionally closed-off mother in tough conversations.
Kirschenbaum explores her contentious relationship with Mildred through old home movies, family interviews and joint family therapy sessions her mother finally agreed to try. Piece by piece we learn Mildred had her own wounds from childhood. This knowledge allows Kirschenbaum to begin the process of healing and to transform her relationship with her mother. Humorous and touching, Look at Us Now, Mother! is a hopeful film about forgiveness and accepting the people we love.
In a decaying mansion in tony East Hampton, Edith Bouvier Beale (yes, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’ aunt) lives with her daughter Edie along with assorted cats, fleas, raccoons and garbage. As the overgrown landscape threatens from the outside and the walls crumble on the inside, mother and daughter live their unconventional lives.
In one scene the elderly Edith, a faded beauty like the mansion she lives in, warbles “Tea for Two” while daughter Edie, dressed in her iconic headscarves, dances, sings and rages that she will never leave Grey Gardens. Mother and daughter quarrel and laugh and reminisce about failed relationships and missed opportunities. The viewer gets an intimate portrait of two women in a loving, eccentric, mutually-dependent relationship.
If you thought the ladies of Grey Gardens were a little, ahem, unusual, just wait until you meet Dee Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose in Erin Carr’s documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest. To outward appearances, Dee Dee was the perfect loving mother, utterly devoted to daughter Gypsy whose medical conditions ran the gamut from muscular dystrophy to leukemia.
Confined to a wheelchair with a shaved head and feeding tube, Gypsy endured countless medical procedures, surgeries and medications her loving mother insisted on. Donations, praise and support poured in for the brave little girl and her selfless mother. Yet it was all a lie. Gypsy could walk. Gypsy was healthy. And Gypsy knew she had to escape her abusive mother. Cue secret online boyfriend with murder fantasies.