Heroic virtue on display in 'Mothers and Daughters' film

by Erik Lenhart

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Go see "Mothers and Daughters." As the credits rolled, several other moviegoers and I all clapped, and afterwards we chatted for over 10 minutes about how touching and powerful the film was. "Mothers and Daughters" (not to be confused with the concurrently released "Mother's Day") is a series of short vignettes and cameos by numerous A-listers that revolve around maternal/filial relationships. The spectrum of relationships offers a marvelous view of the reality and struggle of human lives. As Pope Francis has written, "The Lord's presence dwells in real and concrete families, with all their daily troubles and struggles, joys and hopes. Living in a family makes it hard for us to feign or lie; we cannot hide behind a mask. If that authenticity is inspired by love, then the Lord reigns there, with his joy and his peace" (Amoris Laetitia, 315).

"Mothers and Daughters" is about real families and authentic struggles. The title is vague and general because the relationships contained in this film are so diverse that it would be hard to call the film anything else. The events of these families include adoption, unexpected pregnancy, deceit, disappointment, and disease, which all strain the relationships between the women in the film in different ways. Conversations via phone, Skype sessions, and texting illustrate the physical and emotional distance between these women. As each mother and daughter pair gets closer in their relationship, they begin to spend more time in physical proximity.

Aside from subtle "show-don't-tell" dramatic devices, "Mothers and Daughters" is worth our attention, because each character demonstrates heroic virtue in time of trial. In other words, the film depicts moral progress and conversion without the "excessive idealization" that Pope Francis warns against. Regarding pastoral care for families, the Pope suggests, "At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families" (AL 36). In the film, the mothers are disappointed at the lack of some due perfection in their daughters' lives, while the daughters feel something lacking in the affection from their mothers. Despite the relational friction, the characters struggle mightily to make mature decisions and develop prudence. Good examples are something sorely lacking in American movies. Film-makers seem to value cleverness, creativity, and innovation over providing content of sustenance and substance. With rare and welcome exception, big-budget films put more resources into the execution and aesthetics rather than developing an idea that might offer insight and encouragement for the human struggle. "Mothers and Daughters" succeeds where high-budget films fail.

"Mothers and Daughters," however, does have its flaws, and critics will point out some stilted scene of dialogue that could have used a few more takes. Admittedly, Skyping with Susan Sarandon does not exactly showcase her full dramatic range. There are perhaps a few conversations that would have been fine additions to the DVD's "deleted scenes." Critics who conclude, however, that "Mothers and Daughters" is a bad movie are spending more time examining the packaging than the contents. Despite its blemishes, "Mothers and Daughters" has heart and wisdom in its portrayal of mother-daughter dynamics.

The central mother/daughter is Rigby Gray (Selma Blair), who learns that she is pregnant after her boyfriend breaks up with her. Through Rigby, "Mothers and Daughters" walks the tightrope of unplanned pregnancy navigating between the Pollyanna idealism of family TV shows like "Full House" and "7th Heaven" and the laugh-it-off "no big deal" nonchalance of comedy-dramas like "Grandma" and "Obvious Child." While "Mothers and Daughters" is no mawkish musical comedy, I applaud the film because it does not settle for awkward laughs, but rather takes the opportunity to find something deeper in anxious situations and fraught relationships. The film's characters all exhibit virtue and growth and are worthy examples because they find meaning in these hardships and relationships.

I love super-hero sagas and science-fiction blockbusters as much as the next Millennial, but what I would most like to see are good examples of people handling concrete challenges with virtue. Our country has no paucity of fallen heroes. From sports, to politics and religion, many of our leaders have given bad examples for so long that we have come to expect less from them. We need good examples of the struggle for virtue, even if fictional to start new conversations and set higher standards for ourselves and our art.

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