Hollywood Loves a Monstrous Mommy. Can It Do Her Justice?

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I screened “The Lost Daughter,” Maggie Gyllenhaal’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, in my living room on a Sunday afternoon. I was on the couch with headphones, and my daughters, ages 6 and 4, were on the floor, fighting over Legos. At one point my younger daughter hit me on the head with a giant stuffed seal. “Watch me,” she yelled. She was going to make soup “out of blood.”

It was a distracted form of watching and working, but it is one that after nearly two years of pandemic life feels, if not ideal, habitual. And it was the ideal state to receive a movie like “The Lost Daughter,” which captures with uncanny precision one version of the multitasking mother and arrives on the heels of a year that many women with children will remember as one of the hardest of their lives.

The mother occupies a bewildering place in American society, simultaneously omnipresent and irrelevant. Harried moms are enshrined in paper-towel commercials, while our political institutions show a Teflon-like resistance to addressing their material needs. It would of course be impossible for any one work to show this condition, this cruelty, in all its richness and iterations, but American art about mothers is rarely made or received with the necessary asterisk, one that acknowledges the labor of caregiving, the five-alarm fires that are raging in our personal lives and political spheres.

“The Lost Daughter” is one of a spate of recent films and television shows that attempt to make audible the scream rising in the throat. It tells the story of an English academic named Leda, played by Olivia Colman in the present and by Jessie Buckley in flashbacks to her life as a young mother, and opens with Colman on the seashore at night. Pain shadows her face and she has what looks like blood on her blouse; she sways and paces before collapsing by the lapping waves. The scene strikes an unsettling note that will thrum for the duration of the movie, which in the present follows Leda at age 47, on holiday on a Greek island. We watch her float in the sea, write and read while she sunbathes, eat ice cream, unfurl into an uneasy relaxation. When a chaotic group — among them a young woman and child — disturbs her idyll on the beach, Leda watches the pair with tenderness and pain on her face.

We learn that the large group is a Greek American family from Queens, including the young woman Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her child Elena. Nina triggers overwhelming memories of Leda’s own early years of marriage and motherhood. In flashbacks, we see a young Leda radiating love and frustration as she cuddles her two daughters, plays lacklusterly, throws a doll out the window, withholds a kiss, strikes one of the girls, laughs with delight. In these flashbacks, the camera is close on the little girls, capturing both how cute and defenseless they are, and how exasperating they might be to a parent on the edge of patience and sanity. In one scene, young Leda’s husband, slender and shaggy-haired Jack Farthing, shakes Leda from her focused work under headphones while the girls’ wailing fills their flat. He gestures to his phone call. “It’s Sunday, you’re on,” she whispers furiously. “I’m working,” he says. “I’m suffocating,” she replies. They are both scholars, but his work seems to take precedence. There’s not much money, and he’s often away — an old story.

In the present, the older Leda’s relationship with Nina’s family is close, mutually antagonistic and strange. Nina becomes a kind of double to Leda, turning to the older woman for support, though they appear to have little in common. Leda is aloof, independent; Nina is young, tied to a menacing husband, worn out by her daughter. “She won’t sleep unless I’m in the bed with her,” Nina tells Leda. “I’m really tired. I’m like scary tired.” And then Leda tells Nina, and us, her secret: She left her children for a period of time when they were small. A flashback reveals the inciting incident, a trip to a conference where she felt the erotic thrill of both professional and romantic attention, unencumbered by the girls. The note of menace continues unabated until a surprising moment of grace at the film’s very end.

Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter.”Credit…Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

As I watched, juggling my own domestic responsibilities with varying amounts of grace, I felt strangely honored by the way the film made space for Leda to make what is undeniably an ugly choice, allowed her to both enjoy her escape and suffer its consequences. Even in my distracted state, it swept in like a stinging breeze off the sea, a cogent, sensuous and provocative work of art that made me reflect on the paucity of realistic representations of motherhood, and the difficulties inherent in creating them.

Cinema loves a monstrous mommy. Leda is often rude and unkind, but Colman’s and Buckley’s brilliant performances allow the viewer to inhabit her desperation, rendering judgment irrelevant. And the film’s timing is transcendent, arriving in a moment when the pandemic has disrupted school, shredded an already frayed child-care infrastructure and forced mothers to cobble together care, work with kids on their lap or drop out of the work force entirely. In this moment, there is something cathartic about a mother who says not only, “I prefer not to,” but, “I cannot,” momentarily leaving the relentless work of caregiving to someone else. It’s both a fantasy of walking away and a warning about its costs.

The urge to flee is in the air. “Scenes From a Marriage,” Hagai Levi’s remake of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic mini-series, shows a mother and breadwinner, Mira, played by Jessica Chastain, as she takes a temporary assignment in Israel, along with a lover. She is the mother as philanderer and absentee. Mira tells her husband, Jonathan, played by Oscar Isaac, that she will fly in biweekly to see their young daughter, justifying her plan with a note of hysteria in her voice: “Men do it all the time and then, you know, it’s not really a big deal.” Unlike Gyllenhaal’s, Levi’s representation of caregiving is gestural, the child almost always in bed, a suspiciously good sleeper. And unlike Leda, Mira doesn’t make the clean break. What is interesting about the series, stylish and very sexy, is how Mira does manage to live a bit like a man, primarily because of her co-parent, a man who explicitly loves caregiving, and the fact that there’s enough money to ease the difficulty. It’s a fantasy of another kind.

A mother leaves in Mike Mills’s new film, “C’mon C’mon,” because her family obligations require it. Mills’s film focuses on the other side of maternal absence: the child, and the person who cares for the child. Viv, played by Gaby Hoffmann, lives separately from her co-parent, who has bipolar disorder, but is obligated to help him through a psychiatric crisis. Joaquin Phoenix plays her brother Johnny, a “This American Life”-style radio host, who volunteers to watch her 9-year-old son, Jesse, while she is away. This is Uncle Johnny’s first rodeo, and he receives parenting instructions from Viv over the phone. The film shows us, mostly through these conversations, that Viv is an involved, present and very real mother (“I [expletive] hate it sometimes,” she tells Johnny, before telling him that he needs to feed Jesse some protein). Upon the movie’s release, I read male critics respectively describe Jesse as “a handful,” his mother as “indulgent.” And yet the movie shows behavior that is fairly standard in terms of child rearing. We see Jesse running away from his uncle in the drugstore and on the street, refusing sleep, rejecting his noodles in favor of ice cream. On the phone with his sister, Johnny laments his inability to control the little boy. “Welcome to my [expletive] life,” she tells him. “Nobody knows what they’re doing with these kids. You just have to keep doing it.”

“C’mon C’mon,” black and white and a bit slow compared with the frenetic sensuality of “The Lost Daughter,” mirrors some of its portrayals: It is, in part, about how hard it is to take care of a small person. In contrast to Leda and Mira, Viv represents a perhaps more common version of the absent mother, one who is gone simply because she has to take care of something else. It’s not quite wish fulfillment — Viv has her hands full caring for Jesse’s dad, and she is still phone-coaching Johnny through his babysitting crises — but the day-to-day stuff is, for once, not her problem. I noted with interest Johnny’s recruitment of another colleague as an on-site babysitter, and Johnny’s female co-worker needling him about putting off work.

Woody Norman and Gaby Hoffmann in “C’mon C’mon.”Credit…Tobin Yelland/A24 Films

The film gestures at the deeper systemic struggles of parenthood. Johnny’s adventures with Jesse are interwoven with his work interviewing (real, nonactor) children, whose circumstances are often difficult and remote from his own, including a child who feels responsible for his little sister while their father is incarcerated. The most perverse — and oblique — object lesson comes only in the final credits. The film is dedicated to Devante Bryant, one of the little boys interviewed. The viewer who searches for Bryant’s name learns that he was murdered by gunfire near his family’s house in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, an area where the average household income is half that of the city’s as a whole. There are American babies much less likely to survive their childhood, American women less likely to survive their matrescence. There are also mothers whose difficult moments, moments like Leda’s or Mira’s or Viv’s, can lead to children being removed from their care. If class and race cannot inoculate women from the difficulties of motherhood, it insulates them from the worst depredations of a cruel country.

Understand U.S.-China Relations

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A tense era in U.S.-China ties. The two powers are profoundly at odds as they jockey for influence beyond their own shores, compete in technology and maneuver for military advantages. Here’s what to know about the main fronts in U.S.-China relations:

Pacific dominance. As China has built up its military presence, the U.S. has sought to widen its alliances in the region. A major potential flash point is Taiwan, the democratic island that the Communist Party regards as Chinese territory. Should the U.S. intervene there, it could reshape the regional order.

Trade. The trade war started by the Trump administration is technically on pause. But the Biden administration has continued to protest China’s economic policies and impose tariffs on Chinese goods, signaling no thaw in trade relations.

Technology. Internet giants have mostly been shut out of China, but plenty of U.S. tech companies still do big business there, raising cybersecurity concerns in Washington. Mr. Xi has said China needs to achieve technological “self-reliance.”

Human rights. Under Mr. Xi, China’s confrontations with the U.S. over values and freedoms have become more frequent, including standoffs over Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and mass detentions of Muslims in Xinjiang.

World leadership. China’s leaders see signs of American decline everywhere and they want a bigger voice in global leadership, seeking a greater role in Western-dominated institutions and courting allies that share their frustration with the West.

The recent Netflix special “Maid,” an adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir, shows how absence can be forced both by economic conditions and by the state. The series follows Alex, a young white mother played by Margaret Qualley, as she escapes an abusive household with her daughter and navigates the circular logic of American welfare. As she fights her way to stability with paltry assistance programs and cleaning jobs, captions show her dwindling funds, an unusually explicit comment on the impossible economics of American life. In one scene, a social worker explains how Alex can qualify for assistance. “I need a job to prove that I need day care in order to get a job?” Alex asks, incredulous. “What kind of [expletive] is that?”

Alex is likable: spunky, funny, scrupulous, beautiful, working on her writing in her rare free time. She is never impatient or unloving with her daughter, a preternaturally placid preschooler. I liked Alex and the show, but was struck by the paradox her character represents, particularly in contrast with Leda and Mira and Viv, who are given the space to be frustrated and miserable, a sort of double privilege of white and comparatively affluent mothers both in reality and onscreen. I imagined how “Maid” would be different if it showed Alex, run ragged from cruel bureaucracy and hard, underpaid jobs, losing her temper with her kid, looking ugly, looking mean. It’s a risk the show doesn’t take, underscoring the challenge of showing the systemic challenges of parenthood alongside the embodied, chaotic act of caregiving and the individual human frailty of mothers. At one point in “C’mon C’mon,” Johnny picks up Jacqueline Rose’s book-length essay “Mothers” from Viv’s desk. “Why on earth,” he reads in a thoughtful voice-over, “should it fall to them to paint things bright and innocent and safe?” Why indeed?

Screen portrayals of motherhood that deal explicitly with class are also invariably tied to the raced logic of America. Compare the sunny Alex of “Maid” with Paula, the protagonist Chiron’s mother in the film “Moonlight” — a Black mother, poor and addicted to drugs, presented to the viewer as she appears to her child: untrustworthy, frightening, possessive and cruel. The director Barry Jenkins has spoken of his concern that her character, taken from the autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, be presented in her full humanity, and she is carefully and empathetically played by Naomie Harris. Yet in the overall context of onscreen representations of Black motherhood, she still falls within what the scholar Nicole Rousseau identifies as a filmic tradition of “survival,” a motif which “illustrates a child attempting to survive a ‘bad’ Black mother.” “Moonlight” is the child’s story, not the mother’s. What might Paula’s movie look like? The love and terror and difficulty and grief of mothering without a safety net, the vagaries of temperament, chance and opportunity.

“Maid” is a show with peculiar racial politics: In an effort to subvert tropes, perhaps, Alex’s first gig as a house cleaner is in the palatial home of a Black woman named Regina (played by a compelling Anika Noni Rose), who imperiously asks Alex if she can read. She and Alex eventually become friends, and fearful Regina, about to become a mother herself, asks Alex if she likes being a mom. “I live for my daughter,” Alex tells her. “You can go,” Regina says coolly, and I laughed out loud, annoyed that Alex didn’t use the moment to paint a fuller picture of the experience. She is a writer, after all.

Rylea Nevaeh Whittet and Margaret Qualley in “Maid.”Credit…Ricardo Hubbs/Netflix

While Alex is struggling in temporary housing, a court orders her to temporarily surrender her daughter to her boyfriend’s custody. To demonstrate her fitness, she attends a parenting class where a condescending man teaches nutrition to a roomful of mothers deemed lacking by the state. The implication of these scenes is that this is an injustice — Alex knows how to mother (it is her own mother, given space by the show to fall apart, who never learned). Poor women and women of color in America who are good parents are indeed uniquely vulnerable to having their children taken. And yet, the scenes made me think of the online parenting class I am currently taking through my H.M.O., one I tried for months to get into when the pandemic revealed I needed help — an opportunity born of privilege. Mothers around America eagerly scroll digestible TikToks and Instagram memes about how to be better parents. In “C’mon C’mon,” Johnny reads a script for “doing a repair” that his sister tells him to look up online after yelling at his nephew. Everyone benefits from an acknowledgment that raising children is hard work that does not always come naturally.

When I watched “The Lost Daughter,” I felt seen by its portrayal of the condition of living simultaneously in joy and desperation, nostalgia and impatience. But I also know that Leda is a mother who looks a bit like me, with work a bit like mine — the kind of work you can do on the couch, lucky work, fulfilling work. Mothering is work, too — lucky and fulfilling, but work nonetheless, made harder at every juncture by a country whose institutions are built around white patriarchy, a country with rampant inequality, no paid leave, no universal child care or health care, no crisis plan beside “figure it out.” We can’t ask any one movie or show to encompass the entirety of a particular human experience. But we can point out what they show and what they obscure about our culture at a moment when the values and requirements of caregivers are argued in the corridors of power. We need more: more help, but also more art — art that is expansive, challenging, fair.

Lydia Kiesling is the author of “The Golden State,” a novel. She lives in Portland, Ore.

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