Mothers can be your best friend or worst nightmare. These movies capture the complexity of having a mom — and being one.
Mother’s Day is beautiful. Mother’s Day is complicated. For some people, it’s a holiday to celebrate; for others, it’s a painful reminder of loss or broken relationships or worse.
So it follows that the phrase “great Mother’s Day movie” holds many different meanings. And Hollywood has relentlessly served up films about mothers and children for decades — some tender, some heartbreaking, some uplifting, and some downright disturbing.
Below, I’ve collected 12 of those movies, to suit a variety of tastes — horror, comedy, melodrama, and more. They’re not the “best” movies about mothers; instead, they’re movies I love or find significant for what they tease out of their stories about being a mother, having a mother, or dealing with some pretty serious mommy issues.
20th Century Women (2016)
Mike Mills’s semi-autobiographical 20th Century Women is a cinematic mixtape dedicated to 1979, the year in which it’s set. But it’s also a tribute to the women who raised him, played in their fictional forms by Annette Bening, Greta Gerwig, and Elle Fanning. The trio discovers, as they navigate a fast-moving century, that there are gulfs between them and things that unite them — but that their relationships with one another are what keep them strong. 20th Century Women tells a multigenerational story that’s light on its feet, funny, and wide-ranging, full of bright performances, evocative music, and the occasional experimental flourish.
Black Swan (2010)
Sure, Black Swan is a horror film about a dancer who’s slowly losing her grip on reality. But it’s also, perhaps more subtly, about a grown woman named Nina (Natalie Portman) who’s desperate to break free from the clutches of Erica, her ballet mom (Barbara Hershey). Erica controls everything in Nina’s life — what she eats, who she talks to, how she spends her time — in an effort to make her daughter live out her own dreams. And there are subtle clues throughout the film that what Nina really wants, more than anything, is to get rid of the parts of Erica that lurk inside her, symbolically or a little more literally.
Daughters of the Dust (1991)
In 1991, Daughters of the Dust became the first feature film directed by an African American woman to open theatrically in the United States. Written and directed by Julie Dash, it tells the story of three generations of women on South Caroline’s St. Helena Island who are preparing to migrate north. The film gained widespread acclaim as a lyrical work that combined rich language, lush visuals, and song to tell its story, in which various women’s experiences as mothers, daughters, lovers, and survivors intertwine.
Goodnight Mommy (2014)
What if your mother … wasn’t your mother? Goodnight Mommy is a super-creepy horror movie that lets the question linger. Twin 9-year-old boys welcome their mother home after her cosmetic surgery, her face swathed in bandages. But then they start to believe that she isn’t their mother at all, and become determined to know the truth. And then things get wild. Not for the faint of heart — but cathartic if you want a good scare — Goodnight Mommy both gets at the essence of the relationship between mother and child and twists it evilly.
Imitation of Life (1959)
The second big-screen adaptation of Fannie Hurst’s 1933 novel of the same name, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life is the story of two single mothers and their daughters: Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter Susie (played as a teen by Sandra Dee), and Annie (Juanita Moore) and her daughter Sarah Jane (played as a teen by Susan Kohner). Annie, who is black, cares for Susie, while Meredith, who is white, pursues her dream of becoming a star. The two families’ close connection grows strained as Meredith becomes more famous and the girls grow into young women — particularly because Sarah Jane is so light-skinned that she can “pass” as white. While Imitation of Life is most biting in its understanding of racial disparities, it’s also a melodrama about the fraught relationships between mothers and daughters.
Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story about a girl who learns that home is truly where her heart is. But home is also where her mother is. Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) have a tenuous relationship; Lady Bird rarely does what she’s supposed to, and Marion is worn thin by love and worry that manifests as sniping at Lady Bird. A scene near the end of the film, when Marion drops off her daughter at the airport, might be one of the best performances of Laurie Metcalf’s career — and it’s impossible to watch without reflecting on your own relationship with your mother.
Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)
The first Mamma Mia! film was about Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) trying to figure out who her father was on the eve of her wedding — but the second is all about motherhood and, specifically, Sophie’s mother Donna (Meryl Streep), who has passed away. Now pregnant and contemplating the future, Sophie reflects on her mother’s life (Lily James plays the younger version of Donna), encounters her grandmother Ruby (played by Cher), and does a lot of singing and dancing to ABBA, obviously. Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is extremely silly and utterly life-affirming, and if you’ve dissolved in tears by the end of watching, you probably did it right.
In 2009, 10 years before the release of his Oscar-winning Parasite, Korean director Bong Joon-ho told the story of a mother who would stop at nothing to clear her son’s name. The mother (who remains unnamed but is played by Kim Hye-ja) is a widow who dotes on her son Do-joon (Won Bin), who has intellectual disabilities. One night a girl turns up dead, and Do-joon is arrested for the crime and forced to confess. His mother sets out on a quest to solve the mystery and free Do-joon. But the story is twisty and surprising, and ends in an uneasy place. It’s thrilling and sports Bong’s signature mix of horror and high comedy.
There’s so much pulsing beneath the surface of Mother! that it’s hard to single out just one theme as a symbol of what it “means.” It’s full-on apocalyptic fiction, and like all stories of apocalypse, it’s intended to pull back the veil on reality and show us what’s really happening. And this movie gets nutty: If its gleeful cracking apart of traditional theologies doesn’t get you (there’s a lot of Catholic folk imagery here, complete with an Ash Wednesday-like mud-smearing on the foreheads of the faithful), its scenes of chaos probably will. (The titular mother, as you might have guessed, has more than one layer, too.) Mother! is a movie designed to provoke fury, ecstasy, madness, catharsis, and more than a little awe.
News From Home (1977)
Chantal Akerman’s mother never appears in News From Home, which juxtaposes images of New York City with letters her mother sent her between 1971 and 1973, when Akerman was in her early 20s and living in the city and her mother was in their native Belgium. The letters are often banal, sometimes happy, sometimes pleading with her to call or write or come home more often. They’re not connected directly to the images onscreen, but the link is clear: We’re seeing what Akerman was seeing as she was turning over her mother’s words in her mind. Anyone who’s lived far from home and felt the pull of a mother’s simultaneous pride and reticence to let their adult child roam will identify.
How to watch it: News From Home is streaming on the Criterion Channel.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Rosemary’s Baby, starring Mia Farrow in an indelible performance, is ostensibly a horror film about what happens when a satanic cult wants to steal your baby and sacrifice him to the devil. It might even be a horror film about being impregnated by the devil. But it’s also simply a movie about the horror of pregnancy — a time when a woman might feel like she’s losing control of her body, occupied by another being, and subject to the poking and prodding and unsolicited advice of friends and strangers. Rosemary’s Baby is campy and sometimes extremely funny, but its visceral evocation of the experience of pregnancy is hard to miss, even for people who’ve never been through it firsthand.
Terms of Endearment (1983)
A true classic, Terms of Endearment won five Oscars (including Best Picture) for its depiction of the relationship between Aurora Greenway (played by Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger). Mother and daughter are close, but widowed Aurora is controlling of Emma, and keeps her own suitors at bay in order to involve herself in her daughter’s life. The film traces decades of their lives together and apart, through good times and difficult ones. It’s an often funny, sometimes melodramatic tearjerker, and one of the definitive Hollywood films about mothers and daughters.
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Author: Alissa Wilkinson