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Year in review: Top 5 mothers and daughters of 2017

A few more year in review list pieces coming (since we know the film year doesn't really end until awards seasons wraps). Here's Lynn Lee

If 2017 was a banner year for fathers in film, it was just as much the year of Complicated Mothers—from Frances McDormand’s justice-seeking Mildred in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO to Holly Hunter’s tart-tongued but soft-hearted Beth in The Big Sick to Mary J. Blige’s stoic Florence in Mudbound.  Within this trend was another that spoke especially personally to me: the even more complicated relationship between mothers and daughters.  We saw all kinds of mother-daughter relationships in 2017—tender, fraught, hostile, sometimes all of the above—portrayed with a depth and complexity we don’t get nearly enough of in relationships between women in movies. 

It’s hard to choose favorites, but the following were the mother-daughter screen pairings this year that I found the most compelling...

05. WONDER WOMAN: Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and Diana (Gal Gadot)
At first glance young Diana seems enveloped in a paradise of matriarchal love, whether it’s the nurturing care of mom Hippolyta or the tougher love of aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). While the latter relishes teaching her to fight, Hippolyta exudes both affection and anxious protectiveness towards the girl, as if there’s something either particularly vulnerable or particularly dangerous about her.  When Diana finally leaves the island, Nielsen’s wonderful face, in that goodbye, conveys both the great love and great fear that any mother might feel seeing her only daughter venture out into a world filled with violent, power-hungry men.  But we later learn that Hippolyta’s been lying to her daughter all along by concealing Diana’s true identity, and the climactic revelation of that secret makes their parting all the more poignant in retrospect.  Gods and superpowers aside, it’s the classic mother’s dilemma between wanting to keep her daughter safe and letting her fulfill her destiny. 

4. I, TONYA: LaVona (Allison Janney) and Tonya (Margot Robbie)
“Toxic” doesn’t even begin to describe this relationship, any more than “codependent” completes it.  Tonya’s mother abuses her both physically and psychologically, yet also pays for her figure skating, presumably in the hope of receiving some reflected glory from her success.  However, as portrayed by Janney, there’s a pathological quality to the way she savagely tears down her daughter, and her dead-eyed, joyless stare at the girl’s moments of triumph, that defies the easy explanation; it’s more like LaVona actually gets off seeing Tonya try and fail.  For Tonya’s part, there’s something masochistic about her desire for her mother’s approval—a point underscored in the film’s most wrenching scene, when LaVona visits her long-estranged daughter, ostensibly to offer her support after the Kerrigan incident.  It’s a cannily played moment, with Janney striking just the right almost-convincing note, and Robbie showing Tonya’s desperate need to believe that deep down, her mother loves her, followed by the devastating sense of betrayal when the rug’s pulled out from under her.  Even knowing it’s coming, we feel gut-punched, too.

3. NOVITIATE: Nora (Julianne Nicholson) and Cathleen (Margaret Qualley)
Not surprisingly for a film about nuns, the mother-figure who got the most attention for this underrated gem was Melissa Leo as the deeply conservative Reverend Mother who rules her convent with an iron fist.  Yet Novitiate is just as remarkable for the other, gentler surrogate mother-figures who attempt to guide protagonist Cathleen throughout her bumpy spiritual journey and her equally bumpy relationship with her birth mother Nora.  The latter’s perhaps too broadly written as a character, yet Nicholson gives such a heartfelt performance that you really buy both her incredulous fear of losing her daughter to a God she doesn’t believe in and the abiding love that keeps her tenaciously coming back.  Qualley, meanwhile, effectively conveys the struggle of a girl who yearns for the exact opposite of her mother’s profane secularism and messy personal life without fully understanding the nature of her own desires.  That constant push-pull maintains suspense right up to the final moment of the movie; fittingly, the last two shots I remember most vividly are the cut from Nora’s expression to Cathleen’s. 

2. THE FLORIDA PROJECT: Halley (Bria Vinaite) and Moonee (Brooklynn Prince)
By every objective metric, Halley is an unfit mother.  Far too young and barely able to scrape by through a combination of scamming affluent tourists, turning tricks, and relying on the kindness of a long-suffering motel manager, she’s completely incapable of providing her pint-sized daughter any of the following: proper nutrition, education, moral discipline, or a stable home or finances.  Here’s what she can and does provide: unconditional, absolute love.  It’s the invisible tonic that allows Moonee to thrive against all odds, even though we know it can’t sustain her forever.  Near the end, Halley takes Moonee to brunch at a “nice” hotel restaurant and lets her order everything she wants (to be charged to a random room, of course).  That one quiet scene beautifully sums up their entire relationship.  You can see it in Vinaite’s eyes as Halley gazes silently across the table at her daughter devouring everything in sight.  They may not be paying this bill, but she knows a bill’s coming due soon—one they’ll both be paying for the rest of their lives.

1. LADY BIRD: Christine “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) and Mrs. McPherson (Laurie Metcalf)
What can I say that hasn’t already been said?  As someone with a close but often thorny relationship with my own mother, I found Christine’s to ring truer than anything I’ve seen this side of The Joy Luck Club and Emily and Lorelai in “Gilmore Girls.”  Lady Bird nails the kind of mother-daughter dynamic where intimate confidences and heated arguments occur with equal frequency, where affection and criticism are inextricable from one another, and where “I love you” is never said but always understood.  Ronan and Metcalf make every interaction feel real and lived-in, from a silly tiff over how eggs should be cooked to shopping for prom dresses to visiting open houses they could never afford to buy.  Their back and forth unfolds so organically that when the big emotional climax arrives, it feels both unexpected and well earned.  And cathartic: I cried, and I’m willing to bet I wasn’t the only one.

Readers, who were your favorite movie mothers and daughters in 2017?

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Reader Comments (17)

I think the "323" that Hailee says is their room number is their actual room number, although not at that actual hotel. So, she's not technically lying!

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

why does connie nielsen look like a deadringer for kirsten dunst in that picture?

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Is Kidman the worst mother of the year for Sacred Deer.

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Off topic, but I just watched INSTERSTELLAR, and noticed Timothee Chalamet (who has a fair chance of winning Best Actor next year) played a young version of Casey Affleck (who won Best Actor this year).

Has this happened with any other movies, where Oscar-winners in the same category in subsequent years played the same character?

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterEmma

Not to mention that Julianne Nicholson played another mother figure as Tonya's coach in I, Tonya. I am so happy that she is getting roles after breaking through in August: Osage County.
Lady Bird broke and heal my heart. The yearning in the open house scene is amazing.
We can't do this lost without MOTHER! LOL

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

Kidman may be the worst mother of the year, but it wouldn't be for Sacred Deer it would be for the wretched Top of the Lake - China Girl.

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAaron

Having just watched Call Me by Your Name, Elio's mother should be nominated. She loves and supports her son but gives him the space he needs to come into his adult self.

December 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTom

emma --ooh that's a good question!

January 1, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

aaron -- how did top of the lake come and go without me noticing. argh. some days the plethora of channels and ala carte viewing (tv used to be so massively simple...and even just a handful of years ago it was still not as complicated as it is now.)

January 1, 2018 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

You dodged a bullet, Nat. TOTL2 aired back in September and, I think, is already now on Hulu.

January 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

For a mother/ daughter pair who are on the same wavelength, work remarkably well together, and are mainstays of the family business, there's Allison Williams and Catherine Keener in "Get Out". (They are evil, though).

January 1, 2018 | Unregistered Commenteradri

Good one, adri.

Craver - I, too, am glad to see Julianne Nicholson continuing to get good roles.

Re: Elio's mom and mother!, those weren't mother-*daughter* pairings, though. But you could easily do a whole 'nother post on mothers and sons!

January 1, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Danielle McDonald & Bridget Everett in ‘Patti Cake$’ are another noteworthy mother/ daughter big screen pairing this year. I was astonished to learn McDonald is Aussie, she was so convincing. Also I feel like now I’m seeing Bridget Everett in everything & I’m not mad about it.

Count me in on the Nicholson love fest too! IMO easily best in show in August: Osage County - can’t wait to check out Novitiate.

January 2, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterchoog

Four other incredible duo:

1. Columbus: Michelle Forbes & Haley Lu Richardson
2. Wonder: Julia Roberts & Izabela Vidivic
3. The Big Sick: Holly Hunter & Zoe Kazan
4. Marjorie Prime: Lois Smith & Geena Davis

January 2, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterjoy

Wonderful article, Lynn. If Laurie Metcalf doesn't win an Oscar, I'm going to throw myself out of a moving car! Happy New Year!

January 2, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Come on, no Katharine Graham and Lally Weymouth? :(

January 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEva

My favourite moment (of many) in LADY BIRD was when mother and daughter shopped for a dress and they bicker before instantly switching back to love as they pull a dress out of the rack.

January 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

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