Three mothers, originally friends because their sons were friends, have stayed in each other’s lives even after their sons have all moved away. We meet them at a mother’s day brunch they’ve thrown themselves because their lousy sons always forget (if any one of them had a daughter, or even a daughter-in-law, this movie wouldn’t exist; daughters are not allowed to forget). Not content to just sit around bitching and whining about their lives, they decide to inflict their neuroses on their grown sons, uninvited. So they pack themselves into the world’s most hostile road trip and storm New York City to make their problems someone else’s.
You likely know a mother or two just like this, and if it’s your own mother, well, god bless you. This kind of mother wants it both ways: she decides she MUST become a mother because her life is incomplete, but then she spends her kid’s life telling him or her that it was a completely selfless act that requires a well of gratitude whose depth cannot be measured as it is bottomless and unending and nothing will ever be enough. And when the child is grown, the mother is lost and without purpose because motherhood was everything and now she is nothing. And improbably, all three female characters in this film are suffering from this affliction.
Personally, I know tonnes of mothers who have managed to maintain a balance between forging a career, having their own life, nurturing friendships, and being better mothers because of it. I don’t imagine that’s easy, but it’s life, and the last time I checked, motherhood IS optional. But these women are acting like life is over because their grown sons don’t immediately reply to their inane and constant texting.
It must have been difficult for Netflix to promote this movie since one of the three women is Felicity Huffman and she’s not exactly winning any motherhood prizes right now (if you’re just poking your head out from underneath a rock, she’s one of the parents accused of believing that her kids are such profound idiots that they could only get into college with the help of large, illegal bribes, and that they still deserved to be there, perhaps taking the place of your own kids, who would have otherwise merited the position, because their mother is rich and famous and quite possibly she just wanted them out of the damn house). Leaving her aside, Netflix managed to convince both Patricia Arquette and Angela Bassett to join the ranks of the pitiful. And frankly, Arquette does nothing to dispel the pity party. She’s gotten a little too comfortably playing the kooky, offbeat, perpetually single mother. When she breaks into her son’s apartment to bake for him, it’s uncomfortably believable. When she fails to learn a lesson about meddling and instead declares that the only problem was that she didn’t meddle soon enough, you believe that too.
Bassett, on the other hand, is an asset. Her character has certainly invested too much of herself into living for the men in her life (her husband and her son), especially when those men haven’t deserved it, don’t return it, and don’t even want it. But because it’s Basset, her character doesn’t feel pathetic. She holds her head high. She clearly has strength. And she DOES learn her lesson, and earns herself a better life; in the end, she’s the only one we’re really rooting for.
I think a lot of women, and perhaps parents generally, struggle with the transition from parenting a child to parenting an adult. But the truth is, that role is always changing. A newborn baby is a round-the-clock, soul-sucking (and hopefully soul-nourishing) job; a two year old is a battle of wills; a twelve year old is an exercise in diplomacy; a fifteen year old is a test of nerves. You never stop being someone’s mother, but mothering stops being invasive and starts being supportive at some point – if you’ve done it right. Not everyone gets it right, and that’s okay too, because we’re all human and we’re all learning on the job. You might even have to be someone’s kid while also being someone else’s parent. But neither of those things should subsume your entire identity.
Otherhood isn’t a great movie but it’s possibly worth watching just because there isn’t enough Angela Bassett in the world as it is. Stories about women are worth telling. We don’t always get them right. We’re all fumbling around trying to figure shit out. And if you haven’t recently been federally indicted on charges of conspiracy to commit fraud, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, you’re probably doing okay.