Of the 96 Tribeca Film Festival 2018 feature films, 46% of them are directed by women, the highest percentage in the Festival’s history. And there are 28 female-centric feature films. While the unofficial theme of TFF2017 might have been “Middle-East War Films (with a special focus on ISIS movies),” the TFF2018 unofficial theme seems to be “By and About Women.” #TribecaToo (ha). But no, these are largely not films about abuse or harassment, although there are a select few that do indeed strikingly address those issues — Blowin’ Up and Netizens at the top of that list. But what struck me as I was watching my way through this year’s screenings is how many films deal specifically with the mother-daughter relationship. Some make that relationship the core subject of the film, others get around to that topic tangentially, and sometimes it’s an insightful way to end a story — giving context and emotional resonance to the rest of the film. Amazingly, none of these depictions seems clichéd or obvious or quite like any of the others. They each seem entirely unique and specific, while also touching on that archetypal dynamic that is central to every woman’s life.
If Freud were to weigh in, I guess he would say we’re all essentially talking about or to our mothers all the time. That may be true. In these films, we see the myriad of ways that our mothers were and remain key elements of our lives. So, here is a list of TFF2018 films with Mother-Daughter Themes:
On the windswept coast of Sardinia, two women compete for the affections of 10-year old Vittoria. The child struggles to develop and understand her connections to both her troubled, alcoholic birth mother and her doting, overly-protective adoptive mother. The film poignantly displays just how immensely a girl will always want her mother. Director Bispuri holds nothing back – not the horrific cruelty nor improbable joy, not the selfishness nor selflessness that takes place between these three female characters.
In Spain, after Anabel hosts an opulent dinner, she is confronted by Chiara, the daughter she abandoned decades earlier. Chiara arrives with just one request — that she and her mother spend ten days together in a remote country cabin. This is a poetic study of maternal feelings wrapped in a suspenseful and unpredictable story. Not a cliché within miles and miles.
Christmas Island, Australia is home to one of the largest land migrations on earth — that of forty million crabs journeying from jungle to sea. But the jungle holds another secret — a high-security facility that indefinitely, and brutally, holds individuals seeking asylum. Meanwhile, local islanders carry out “hungry ghost” rituals for those who died on the island without receiving proper burial. In this haunting documentary tale, a trauma-therapist who works with inmates at the detention center also works to raise her two daughters with a semblance of understanding, yet without burdening them with the heavy cloud of suffering that hangs over the mysterious island.
Teenage Lana is languishing in her run-down hometown on Israel’s north coast — until an older, attractive writer arrives with tales of a mermaid sighting off the shore of the declining resort town, with the potential to change everything. Lana has been rebelling against her mother, who is struggling to keep her beach-front café from going bankrupt, and begrudgingly looking after her younger cousin. The convergence of events ultimately brings these female characters together in a boat on a stormy sea, at night, with an uncertain outcome. This is a coming-of-age tale like none other — told with deft elegance and nonchalant magic.
5. Mary Shelley
The experience of Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin’s whirlwind romance with the tempestuous poet Percy Shelley is a story that led her to create one of the most enduring works of Gothic literature – Frankenstein. While just 17 years old, Godwin runs away with Shelley, in a romantic crusade that turns ugly once she becomes pregnant with their child, who will soon die. Mary is haunted by the history of her own mother, who also had a passionate and defiant past, and who died soon after her birth. This literary tale reveals little-known details about this true story that is as much about mothers and daughters and abandonment as it is about monsters in the dark.
Credited with incubating East-Coast Hip Hop and West-Coast Rap, America’s roller rinks have long been bastions of regional African-American culture, music, and dance. As rinks shutter across the country, a community of thousands battle in a racially charged environment to save an underground subculture – one that has remained undiscovered by the mainstream for generations. In this documentary that is both celebratory and sad, one of those who fights to maintain this multi=generational phenomenon is a single mother, living in the ghetto, who uses roller skating as a way to entertain her kids and keep them out of trouble. As access to dance-night at the roller rink becomes increasingly distant and difficult to find, this mother desperately travels farther and farther in order to bring her children to this experience that she believes might save their souls and their lives.
7. Duck Butter
Two women, jaded by dishonest and broken relationships, make a pact to spend 24 uninterrupted hours together, having sex on the hour. This romantic, young-at-heart experiment intends to create a new form of intimacy, but it doesn’t quite go as planned. Among the upsets is the arrival of one young woman’s mother, who has an unexpected impact on the mood of the adventure and on the way these women begin to understand each other differently. In just a few potent scenes, we see that mother-daughter relationships are not always what we think they are, especially as seen by outsiders.
Celebrated Chinese couturier Guo Pei is perhaps best known for designing the extravagant and intricate, gold gown that Rihanna wore to the Met Ball in 2015. But Guo’s quest to be recognized by the gatekeepers of Paris haute couture goes beyond the red carpet and taps into global power dynamics and the perpetual tension between art and commerce. In between the glamorous and grueling scenes of this gorgeous documentary, we are told that Guo Pei learned embroidery from her grandmother. And woven into this movie like one thin golden thread is the relationship between Guo Pei and her traditional Chinese mother, who is virtually blind and has not been able to see any of her daughter’s masterful creations, nor understand most of what Pei is so ambitiously pursuing. The story of Pei’s ambitions has its own fascinating ending, but the film itself ends with mother and daughter embracing and crying. This is a fashion film, first and foremost, but the underlying message is “Never forget your mother.”
Journalist Assia Boundaoui directed, wrote, and stars in this revelatory documentary film that also features her family and her neighbors. Assia sets out to investigate long-brewing rumors that her quiet, predominantly Arab-American neighborhood outside of Chicago was being monitored by the FBI (starting well before 9/11), and in the process she exposes a surveillance program on a scale no one could have imagined. This stunning film explores the way that paranoia is an effective tool of control; the fear created by of an invisible watcher who sees you without your being able to see them has managed to silence the outrage of this abused community. As part of her work to unearth the truth, Assia goes on a mission to get her neighbors to sign a request to receive government information that has been collected about them, and she is met with surprising resistance. She is dismissed, shunned and even threatened. This is an important film about government abuse of power, and still it rests on a platform built from family; without the support of her mother, and the words, “I am proud of what you are doing,” Assia likely would not have persevered and succeeded in making this movie.
In this extremely odd but charming Swedish social comedy, local officials, in a bid to lure a superstore to their quiet hamlet, set out producing a promotional video about their town, only to find themselves disrupted at every turn by two female teens making their own rival film. Amateurs is a weird movie, and for me it was mostly compelling as an example of how various people “self-report” — how people go about telling their own stories. But another memorable aspect was the relationship each of the teenage filmmaking girls has with her mother. One mother is progressive and supportive of her daughter’s creativity, while the other is a “lower-class” immigrant who is more driven by fear and the desire to fit in and not make trouble. The bonds of teen friendship being what they are, the two girls do prevail in making their movie, but it is definitely worth noting the ways in which their different mothers make their marks on their daughters and influence their behaviors and perspectives — and not always in the most expected ways. This is a truly strange movie that feels long and is easy to lose patience with, but I did sit through it, and in the end the film laughs at you for staying with it, as you laugh along with the girls and the crazy-long movie they have made.
So, there ya go — Top Ten Mother-Daughter movies. But truly, these are only ten of the many-more Tribeca films that include this theme. I have not yet seen all the Tribeca films, so I cannot truly say that these are the actual best ten. But they are all worth a couple hours of your life, and definitely worth considering in terms of this timeless, symbolic and resonant relationship.
Stop the Presses
After I wrote this article, I saw the movie, Egg, which is a sort of homage to Edward Albee’s darkly satirical Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, while also directly examining issues of pregnancy, abortion, child-birth, adoption, surrogate mothers, and parenting. Obviously, it cannot be left out of this list. Egg is a provocative and unflinching look at two couples and a surrogate; it lays bare the complications, contradictions, heartbreak, and absurdities implicit in how we think about motherhood. Helen Highly recommends it. Click here to read my full review of Egg.