Why Mother-Daughter Relationships Are Rich Material for the Awards Race

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'Lady Bird,' 'I, Tonya' and 'Patti Cake$' are just a few of this year's films that explore the complicated parent-child partnership.

One of the best scenes in Lady Bird arrives when an exasperated mother can't bring herself to lie to her sensitive teenage daughter, even if it's something the high school senior needs to hear. "Do you like me?" asks Saoirse Ronan's Lady Bird (nee Christine) while the two are ensnared in an already fraught situation: shopping for a prom dress with limited funds. "Of course I love you," replies Laurie Metcalf's Marion, sidestepping her daughter's request for validation. "But do you like me?" Lady Bird presses. Each half-second that passes without an answer is agony for the teen, but we also understand Marion's frustration at being asked to give once again by a child who mostly takes. Finally, the mother responds, with diplomatic honesty, "I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be." It's not an answer Lady Bird wants, because it's complicated, and she's at a stage in her life when she'd prefer to flatten everything she knows into a cliche: Sacramento sucks, boys are unreliable, and moms don't get it. But Marion's feelings toward her daughter are irreducibly complex. For the middle-aged nurse, her daughter is a source of primal hope and relentless annoyance, a creature that demands an unpredictable balance of encouragement and independence.

Lady Bird is the most celebrated mother-daughter story this awards season, with star Ronan, supporting player Metcalf and writer-director Greta Gerwig considered strong contenders in their respective categories. But 2017 has been a banner year for movies and TV shows about mothers and daughters overall. Joining Lady Bird in the golden derby are I, Tonya and The Florida Project, two other female-centric films with a focus on economic lack. Mother-daughter relationships also form some of the strongest elements of awards dark horse Wonder Woman and the overlooked coming-of-age rap indie Patti Cake$. On television, several series about mothers and daughters are making best-of-2017 lists, including FX's Better Things, Netflix's One Day at a Time reboot and Showtime's SMILF. Meanwhile, leaning into mother-daughter complexities gave HBO's Girls and Netflix's Master of None some of their best episodes in already critically acclaimed seasons, not to mention an Emmy for writers and stars Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe for the coming-out installment "Thanksgiving."

Gerwig, who actually titled the first draft of her Lady Bird script Mothers and Daughters, has offered some insight into why so many projects about mother-daughter relations have been met with adulation from both critics and audiences.

"It's such a rich relationship," the Frances Ha star and co-writer said on NPR's Fresh Air this year. "It has a tremendous amount of love and a tremendous amount of angst. I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter."

But, Gerwig pointed out, such real-life intricacies get relatively little onscreen attention. "I wanted to give it a space that you would usually reserve for a romantic relationship," she says. It is perhaps no surprise that most of the year's probing and perceptive mother-daughter stories come from female filmmakers.

If father-son narratives often take on epic screen proportions — think Star Wars, The Godfather or The Lion King — mother-daughter tales tend to derive their strengths from emotional intimacy and realism. (That's not a strict rule, of course: Pixar's Brave, for example, had a mythical quality. But father-son struggles — as well as the anxieties about succession and lineage that they evoke — reflect the fact that men have held power for most of human history.) Despite its resemblance to any number of coming-of-age stories, Lady Bird feels indelibly fresh because Gerwig changes the stakes of the typical cinematic bildungsroman. The measure of the maturity Christine/Lady Bird eventually arrives at isn't accomplishment or disillusionment, as in so many coming-of-age narratives; it's the cinematically underappreciated virtue of gratitude toward her parents, and particularly toward the mother she has often raged against.

That variation on the traditional happy ending, combined with exceptional performances by Danielle Macdonald and a revelatory Bridget Everett, also gives Patti Cake$ its deeply moving resolution. I, Tonya and The Florida Project, on the other hand, offer up "bad moms" to explore how mothers with tight resources (and finite amounts of patience) express love in unconventional and even harmful ways.

Lady Bird, Patti Cake$ and I, Tonya all feature scenes in which mothers jab at their daughters as a protective measure meant to shield them from a greater injury later on. Allison Janney's skater mom LaVona in the Tonya Harding dramedy, for example, humiliates her daughter (played by Margot Robbie) on the teen's first date with her future husband in an attempt to kill the imminently toxic romance then and there. We're embarrassed for Tonya, but we can understand LaVona's motivations, too. LaVona believes that she's doing the best that she can for teenage Tonya so that the skating prodigy can be something more than a waitress like her mother.

TV of the past two decades has featured no shortage of fully realized mother-daughter relationships, from Roseanne to Gilmore Girls. But the medium keeps getting darker and more inclusive — trends that have helped push small-screen portrayals of motherhood into uncomfortable, novel and finely detailed territory. This year, Better Things and Girls dove into how emotionally overwhelming motherhood can be. Those shows — along with One Day at a Time and SMILF — also have displayed a keen interest in how a young(er) mom's relationship with her own mother influences the way she chooses to raise her kids.

A mother-daughter story is no shortcut to quality. (Witness Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn's kidnapping comedy Snatched.) But this year's sudden influx of charming and observant mother-daughter films and shows is wholly welcome for the emotional depth and unique dynamics they explore.

Lady Bird's success reminds us that the tale it tells is universally relatable. All these other narratives tell us that mother-daughter relationships are far from a niche experience.

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Father-Son Relationships That Fueled 2017 Contenders

The Big Sick

Kumail Nanjiani's autobiographical story sees his character butting heads with his Muslim father, who isn't a fan of his son's disinterest in arranged marriage and interest in dating white, American women. Bollywood legend Anupam Kher plays Kumail's father, Azmat, who in one scene tells his son: "The American Dream doesn't say, 'Do whatever you want and not care about other people.' That's wrong." Nanjiani based the onscreen patriarch on his actual father. "In popular culture, there isn't any other conception of Islam and Muslims other than what you see on the news," says the star-writer. "We just wanted to portray them as people."

Call Me by Your Name

When Michael Stuhlbarg's Professor Perlman realizes that his teenage son, Elio (Timothee Chalamet), is falling in love with his summer intern Oliver (Armie Hammer), he chooses his words carefully. The Italy-set drama culminates with a moving monologue in which he reassures his heartbroken son of his unwavering acceptance and reminds him that love can be hard to find. "It was special — he draws very gentle lines in terms of understanding the role as a parent," Stuhlbarg says of the speech, which he learned has spurred at least one viewer to come out to his own family. "It's the kind of thing that people want to be able to share with their loved ones."

Dunkirk

In Christopher Nolan's World War II epic, Mark Rylance plays Mr. Dawson, who boats into the war zone with his son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney). Though their rescue efforts prove fatal for Peter's friend George (Barry Keoghan), the remaining two push on to help as many stranded soldiers as they can. Dawson hopes that his brave actions are an example for his son, whose eyes are opened to the harsh realities of war. Says Rylance, "I would hope that people take encouragement in that no matter how inconsequential or powerless they may feel — and we can feel it so easily these days as a normal civilian — that, actually, small actions make a big difference."

The Meyerowitz Stories

Noah Baumbach's Netflix dramedy stars Dustin Hoffman as Harold Meyerowitz, a self-involved sculptor who paid much more attention to his art than his sons: a bitter businessman (Ben Stiller) and his unemployed half-brother (Adam Sandler). After a family reunion that includes a slew of frustrating encounters, the brothers come to accept their flawed father and the limits of the emotional relationship he has with them. But Baumbach feels a special connection with the colorful Meyerowitzes: "I love them all, including Harold," he says, "and I understand why people might fall into a marriage with one or two of them before they came to their senses."

This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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