Mothers & Daughters
- Written and directed by Carl Bessai
- Starring Babz Chula, Gabrielle Rose and Tantoo Cardinal
- Classification: 14A
Carl Bessai's new film Mothers & Daughters just missed a Mother's Day release and perhaps that is all for the best. I can't imagine treating the dear old thing to this ineffectual rumination on the mother-daughter relationship peopled by loopy mums and their resentful girls.
Bessai asked three senior Canadian actresses - Babz Chula, Gabrielle Rose and Tantoo Cardinal - to play three mothers, pairing them with three younger talents and asking them to work up their on-screen relationships through improvisation. There is one brilliant party fight scene here, in which the sycophantic friends of a self-centered author turn on her, that vindicates the improv approach, but elsewhere the results are uneven, and often feel underwritten.
To three largely unrelated fictional stories set in a generic city that belatedly reveals itself to be Vancouver, Bessai then adds documentary-style interviews in which the women discuss what it means to be a mother or daughter. These sound more real than some of acted scenes and occasionally provide tellingly contradictory points of view, but they also act as a narrative crutch for both plot points and emotional motivation the dramatic scenes are failing to deliver.
The first pairing is headed up by Chula as Micki, the outrageously narcissistic romantic novelist who wants her daughter Rebecca (Camille Sullivan) to be her friend and especially her audience. Naturally, Rebecca resents this and the two fight like cat and dog, more and more believably as the film progresses. Chula risks going over the top here and turning the celebrity-in-her-own-mind into an outright parody but, in this instance, the documentary interviews act as something of an anchor, allowing her to explore the woman's self-delusions in a quieter setting. And her climactic moment in which she tells Rebecca to leave the house is one of the few instances where this film captures a powerfully honest moment on camera.
Chula and Sullivan have their characters all figured out; the second story, in which the befuddled middle-aged Brenda puzzles over the whereabouts of both her husband and their money, is more elliptical, more intriguing, but ultimately not as satisfying because it isn't fully explained.
As the mother, Rose does a lovely rendition of the genteel housewife wrapped in the cotton wool of denial, nicely offset by all the hard edges created by Tiffany Lyndall-Knight as her hyper-competent and competitive daughter Kate, but their story remains confusing. It's not hard to guess how Brenda got this way nor to understand why her daughter finds her so annoying: Kate actually has to read Brenda the e-mail in which dad dumps mum. What's a complete mystery is why Kate is not just annoyed but also weirdly estranged from both her mother and her own life. The notion that someone so lacking in empathy in private is a therapist in her professional life - her clients include the battling Micki and Rebecca - is downright scary.
The third story is the least successfully realized. Cardinal plays Celine, a calm and self-confident house painter who sympathizes maternally when her well-heeled young client Cynthia (Tinsel Korey) starts inexplicably vomiting. We know from those interviews that Cynthia is herself adopted and for a time it looks as though Cardinal and Korey are marching toward an improbable reunion of long-lost relatives, but their story eventually shies away from the melodrama and Celine just helps Cynthia prepare for the arrival of a baby.
This was the point at which I really parted company with a film that seems so determined to shortchange its rich characters. What adult Canadian with the medical services of a big city at her doorstep who found herself pregnant after a one-night stand would not at least consider abortion? Here, the documentary device becomes hollow because the unseen interviewer isn't used to raise the obvious question about how Korey's character made the decision to both continue with the pregnancy and keep the child.
For all the indie flavour and low-budget smarts of his film, Bessai proves as unable as any Hollywood director to mention abortion as a possible choice, and he ends the film on an optimistic note that seems largely unjustified. He has created an oddly contradictory thing here: a film about dysfunctional or non-existent mother-daughter relationships that can't even countenance the idea that some women might reject motherhood at the outset.