'Look at Us Now, Mother!': Film Review

Courtesy of Gayle Kirschenbaum
Viewers should be paid a therapist's fee for watching it.
4/8/2016

Gayle Kirschenbaum's documentary chronicles her contentious relationship with her overly critical mother.

Apparently, there's an upside to having a tortured childhood at the hands of an emotionally abusive, highly judgmental mother. Eventually, you get to make a film about it.

The latest in a long line of elongated therapy sessions that nowadays pass for documentaries is Gayle Kirschenbaum's Look at Us Now, Mother!, the very title of which feels like a cry for help. It exhaustively chronicles the filmmaker's troubled relationship with her elderly parent, Mildred, age 92 at the time of filming, who admittedly is a real piece of work.

But you don't have to take my word for it. The expression is used to describe the still-feisty nonagenarian by one of her friends at the Boca Raton (where else?) adult community where she lives.

"I'm in adult sleepaway camp," Mildred complains.

As the daughter reminds us, and reminds us, and reminds us, she certainly had a difficult childhood, with her mother constantly criticizing her looks, among everything else. Punishing Gayle by having her older brother imprison her on top of a refrigerator from which she couldn't get down, Mildred was an imperious figure who clearly hasn't mellowed with age. For many years, she harangued Gayle about getting a nose job, a subject which inspired a previous short film, My Nose.

"You have that ethnic look," Mildred points out to her daughter. When the pair visit a plastic surgeon, however, he politely declines to take on the assignment.

Extensive footage from 16mm home movies illustrates Gayle's childhood in a Long Island suburb, where she lived with her mother; her late father, who she clearly adored (his declining health and death provides one of one of the film's more moving segments); and her older brothers, who briefly testify about their mother's less than kindly treatment of their sister.

We also see the mother and the daughter working on their relationship via a series of therapy sessions, which delve into Mildred's own unhappy childhood that included a father who went bankrupt and twice attempted suicide. Not surprisingly, she has trouble dealing with her past, constantly reciting the refrain, "I don't remember."

Happily, mother and daughter eventually work through their issues, or at least some of them — "You're an abusive person!" screams Mildred at one point — bonding over such events as the death of Gayle's beloved shih tzu, Chelsea, who was her most important emotional connection (she's never been married, although not for want of her mother's nagging). By the time the two women travel to France for a film festival and are shown having a wonderful time together, you'll be positively kvelling.  

Production: Kirschenbaum Productions
Director-screenwriter-producer: Gayle Kirschenbaum
Directors of photography: Steven Gladstone, Gayle Kirschenbaum
Editors: Alex Keipper, Gayle Kirschenbaum
Composer: Jonathan Sacks

Not rated, 84 minutes

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