With a pandemic putting beloved Mother’s Day traditions on hold this year, movies about conventional moms — the kinds with cute kids, kindly husbands and gorgeously sun-soaked kitchens — can provide much-needed comfort and solace. “Cheaper by the Dozen” will do nicely.
But in this atypical time, it’s atypical moms who deserve screen time. These matriarchs are nobody’s idea of ordinary. They’re the tough oddballs and troublesome misfits and anything-goes women who are fiercely protective of their kids, and who strive, despite many obstacles, to help their families flourish and make bad situations better. These moms are strange, but you know what? Moms’ new normal is strange, too.
No matter what kind of parent you’re celebrating this holiday, here are some terrific movies about out-of-the-ordinary moms to help make this anything-but-normal Mother’s Day feel just a little sweeter. (Except Ma. Keep an eye on her.)
Robot Mom: ‘I Am Mother’ (2019)
Who says you have to be human to be a mom? In this dystopian sci-fi thriller, a maternal robot named Mother (warmly voiced by Rose Byrne) raises a flesh-and-blood girl named Daughter (Clara Rugaard) alone inside a fortified bunker as part of a plan to repopulate a devastated postapocalyptic Earth. (There are eerie similarities between our grim present and the film’s quarantine-like setting and its characters’ aversion to — and skepticism of — outside contagion.) But when Daughter lets in a wounded human woman (Hilary Swank) who’s skeptical of Mother’s intentions, Daughter’s allegiance crumbles, and she begins to wonder: Does Mother know best? Tightly directed by Grant Sputore, “I Am Mother” keenly raises thought-provoking questions about modern medical ethics and artificial intelligence as the frenzied action snowballs. But tenderly threaded into the suspense and dread is a contemplative and heartfelt story — perfect for moms who love a good debate — about the many meanings and motivations of motherhood.
Available on Netflix.
Drag Mom: ‘The Queen’ (1968)
Decades before there was Elektra — the mother of the fictional House of Abundance on “Pose” — there was the real-life Crystal LaBeija. With eyelashes to here, LaBeija was the mother, or drag overseer, of the House of LaBeija, the created queer family founded in the early 1970s in the opening days of the modern New York drag and ballroom scene. In Frank Simon’s fabulous documentary “The Queen,” LaBeija is among the drag contestants vying in the Miss All-American Camp Beauty Pageant, hosted by the drag icon Flawless Sabrina (a.k.a. Jack Doroshow, who died in 2017). When the top prize goes to the delicate Miss Harlow of Philadelphia, Miss LaBeija loses it. Feeling slighted by the judges, and competing amid the racism of pre-Stonewall New York City, she delivers a furious rant that’s a must-see snapshot of what happens when you mess with a drag mother. (For more on the House of LaBeija, watch the vital, influential documentary “Paris Is Burning.”)
Killer Mom: ‘Ma’ (2019)
“What kind of mother parties with high schoolers?” screams an enraged mom to this film’s title character, setting up the diabolical premise in Tate Taylor’s deranged horror-thriller. Octavia Spencer stars as Sue Ann, a kindly veterinarian’s assistant in small-town Ohio who buys bored teenagers alcohol and invites them to get wasted in her basement, where “Safety Dance” is on the playlist as if the ’80s never ended. But the fun downstairs belies numerous terrors upstairs, which has been declared off-limits. That’s because Ma — as she wants the kids to call her — lives with a trauma from her past, and as a result has nefarious plans for her new young friends, some of whom are the offspring of Ma’s former, not-so-nice high school classmates. Ricocheting from sweetness to fury, Spencer gives a sharply calibrated, snowball-cold performance as a damaged Gen X parent with a bloodthirsty appetite for vengeance.
Available on HBO Now.
Mom Behaving Badly: ‘Bad Moms’ (2016)
“It’s overworked and underappreciated moms who finally allow themselves to be a little bit selfish.” That’s how Mila Kunis has described the characters she, Kathryn Hahn and Kristen Bell play in this raunchy comedy, written and directed by two dads: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (the screenwriters of “The Hangover”). Silly and stuffed with sass, “Bad Moms” is an escapist fantasy about stressed-out suburban mothers who are so fed up with the pressure to be perfect neo-Donna Reeds that they stop playing nice and go for broke in wildly buffoonish, boozy and hilariously irresponsible ways. (Christina Applegate leads the gang of do-gooders who clash with the momsters.) For women who never dreamed a pandemic would be the reason they became stay-at-home parents, “Bad Moms” is a devil-may-care antidote to quarantine fatigue. Writing in The New York Times, Manohla Dargis called the film “a funny, giddy, sentimental laugh-in.” This one’s for moms who need a break and a laugh.
Complicated Mom: ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)
Wonderful and weepy are movies about well-intentioned mothers in conflict with their self-involved daughters: Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas”; Joan Crawford in “Mildred Pierce”; Lana Turner and Juanita Moore in “Imitation of Life.” (What a Mother’s Day triple feature!) Add to that list Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson, the loving but ever-discontented parent of an individualistic teen daughter (a delightfully awkward Saoirse Ronan) in Greta Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated “Lady Bird.” Metcalf knows her way around flawed, multifaceted mothers, having brilliantly portrayed them on TV (“Roseanne”) and Broadway (“A Doll’s House, Part 2”). In “Lady Bird,” Metcalf — herself nominated for an Oscar — is all the things we’re fascinated and frustrated by in a complex matriarch: she’s wry but sensitive, demanding but practical, tough but supportive. Her perceptive performance as an all-too-human mother of a driven, oddball daughter makes “Lady Bird” an entertaining and lovely bounty for a Mother’s Day movie: it’s insightful, bittersweet and above all, remarkably moving.