In honor of Mother’s Day, our Netflix column this week is devoted to films that illustrate the many complex facets of motherhood. Being a mom is one of the toughest jobs in the world, and for all the joy that comes with the responsibility, there’s also pain and sorrow associated with being a parent, too. So not all of these Netflix picks are feel-good movies, but rather they reflect the wide range of emotions associated with mother-child relationships.
Our first recommendation is Philomena, the compelling story of a woman who searches for her son 50 years after being forced to give him up for adoption, which also serves as a touching testament to just how strong and unbreakable a bond between a mother and child can be. And as we see in the charming Canadian film The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom, parents who adopt children often experience their own issues and blessings.
For a more modern take on motherhood, Fort Bliss examines the challenging life of a US Army medic (played by Michelle Monaghan) who has to choose between her military career or staying home to raise her five-year-old son. There’s a battle of a different kind being waged in the dark comedy Mad, about two adult sisters trying to deal with the hospitalization of their emotionally-troubled mother. For anybody whose family never seems to be able to stop bickering, Mad could very well be a cathartic viewing experience. And our last pick is a film that you probably shouldn’t watch with dear ol’ mom unless you’re really open with each other and cool with heavy subject material. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a disturbing portrait of parents (Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly) reckoning with their son after he commits multiple murders at his high school.
Sure, these movies explore some extreme scenarios that may feel foreign to most families, but watching them will undoubtedly make you appreciate how chill your own parents are. All in all, a big salute to all the mothers out there who knew that having kids would be no cakewalk, but took it on anyways. Happy Mother’s Day!
Warning: May Contain Spoilers
Starring: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan
Director: Stephen Frears
Genre: Drama, Mystery
Based on the true story of an Irish woman named Philomena Lee (Judi Dench), this film details the life of the woman who was sent to live in a convent when she became pregnant as a teenager and was later forced to give up her son for adoption. 50 years later, she searches for him with the help of journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), and, in the process, a major scandal is exposed.
If you can overlook some of the predictable back and forth between Dench and Coogan that you know is in the script just for the sake of bringing the characters closer together, the rest of this elegant dramedy will likely tug at your heartstrings. Director Stephen Frears, who has made such diverse films as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and High Fidelity (2000), uses convincing flashbacks to skillfully convey the burden this mother has carried over time. Dench is outstanding in expressing both the woman’s longing to reunite with her long lost son and the guilt she has felt for decades for not being in his life. Words aren’t even necessary; it’s all etched on the actress’s face. But, most of all, Dench’s performance makes it clear that a mother’s love is never-ending.
The Year Dolly Parton Was My Mom (2011)
Starring: Julia Sarah Stone, Macha Grenon
Director: Tara Johns
For some kids, adoption can mean an opportunity for a better life. But when a child discovers she or he has been adopted, it can turn their world upside down. Kids can feel like they’ve been “lied to” by their adoptive parents and mayi even experience an overwhelming need to seek out their birth parents.
That’s exactly what happens to our protagonist Elizabeth (Julia Sarah Stone) in this ‘70s-era drama. The precocious 11-year-old quickly learns, however, that she can never find out the identities of her birth parents due to adoption laws, so she comforts herself with the wild idea that the country superstar Dolly Parton might be her real mother, and ventures out to meet the singer any way she can.
For the record, Dolly only lends her voice to the movie, both in a key voice-over and through her music, which is featured prominently. But her inspirational spirit has a commanding presence throughout this endearing film, which also demonstrates how parents who adopt always risk feeling “rejected” later on by their children who yearn to find their biological parents.
Fort Bliss (2014)
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Ron Livingston, Oakes Fegley
Director: Claudia Myers
Michelle Monaghan stars as a heroic medic in the US Army who struggles to reconnect with her five-year-old son (Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon) after being away for 15 months in Afghanistan. War has undoubtedly hardened her, but while toughness is a necessary trait for surviving on the battlefield, it also makes it difficult for her to open up in her personal relationships back home.
PTSD is a serious and severe problem for veterans, but attention must also be paid to how children are affected by their parents going to war. Not only do soldiers miss out on their kids’ childhoods, they can develop problems re-entering civilian life when the only “normal” they know is on the front lines. Monaghan’s conflicted character is caught between two worlds, and her decision-making is influenced by her patriotic duty to her country, which stands in the way of her commitment to her child.
Starring: Jennifer Lafleur, Eilis Cahill, Maryann Plunkett, Mark Reeb
Director: Robert G. Putka
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Before you watch Mad, you’ll probably be wondering what the hell is so funny about a bipolar and suicidal mother who is grief stricken over a recent divorce, and the daughters who argue over who has to take care of her. But Mad is not exactly your typical comedy. Writer-director Robert G. Putka pulls off minor miracles in finding deprecating humor in the touchiest of subjects, whether it be depression and anxiety, sibling rivalry, or the hard-to-admit truth about how easy it is to avoid our family responsibilities.
Driven by top notch performances, Mad can feel a little bit too real at times. Yet calling it “a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family” doesn’t seem completely right because, frankly, most families undergo similar trials and tribulations. If there’s a silver lining to the film, it’s the message that it’s never too late to reconcile with family, and that nothing compares to the comfort a mother can provide you when you’re going through tough times.
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Starring: Tilda Swinton, John C. Reilly, Ezra Miller
Director: Lynne Ramsay
Despite its title, please don’t mistake this for some light-hearted movie about an out-of-control spoiled brat with clueless parents. We Need to Talk About Kevin is a much darker film than that. Simply put, Eva and Franklin Khatchadourian (an excellent Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly) are inadvertently raising a sociopath. The film unfolds in a disjointed, almost abstract manner. The audience is asked to put the pieces of the puzzle together. When the bigger picture starts becoming clearer, the sense of dread grows. You’re uncomfortably trapped alongside this poor woman until the disturbing conclusion. And as we get there, we are left wondering about the limits of a mother’s love, especially when her son has become a monster.