Monster dearest

The screen moms of 2006 look for redemption through desperate living, methadone, and visitation rights

Move over, matchy-matchy Faye Dunaway of Mommie Dearest and much too armed and dangerous to hug Shelley Winters of Bloody Mama (possibly the lousy dowager emeritus, thanks to Lolita). Mamma mia, was there ever a year crammed with more bad mothering run stealthily amok, far from most of the multiplexes and the real-life broodies dragging their spawn to the latest animated feature?

If you weren't busily entertaining your offspring in the big theater, you could easily slip into a small screening room to feel either much better about your parenting skills — or much worse. No, 2006 was not kind to materfamilias — anxiety was high over nurturing yet meddling, muddling, and sometimes castrating bitches with often loved but also neglected litters. The not-quite-model matrons who stood out were flagrantly flawed hard-luck ladies, straight outta the clink, outta rehab, outta options. They were both abusers and abused, working lousy jobs, distrusted, and desperate for a second chance — Norma Raes and Erin Brockoviches sans a speck of political consciousness. Mother's Day 2006 in the movie houses was all about evil as well as Eve's plight: succumbing to temptation and, of course, seeking redemption. Call this gaggle of generally downbeat, self-absorbed, Dumpster-realism gals the prodigal (single) mothers.

Homemakers or home wreckers? Welfare queens or queen me's? In Running with Scissors, Annette Bening's med-damaged, mad housewife-poet of a mumsy was all of the above, with alimony. Meryl Streep's cunning Lioness D'Wintour fashion editor piss-take in The Devil Wears Prada juggled career and family nastily, taking a smooth stab at working matriarchs both biological and mentor-ological. And the small-town girls and comeback kids–turned–semimythic maternal figures of Penélope Cruz and Carmen Maura in Pedro Almodóvar's latest women's film, Volver, take a dreamily innocent, genre-specific, less-realistic gaze at motherhood. The women in Almodóville are decent, vivid, communal, and inadvertently, invariably deadly — these bleeder-brooders with bloody "women's troubles" live in a world almost completely free of men (the few who do pop up are incestuously abusive), somewhere on the matrilineal border of Two Women and Juliet of the Spirits.

Like Volver's Cruz and Maura, two other rhyming cinematic mothers — played by two Maggies, Cheung and Gyllenhaal, in Clean and Sherrybaby, respectively — believe there's life after a loss of innocence and even death. Birthing best-actress awards and considerations, Cheung's Emily Wang and Gyllenhaal's Sherry Swanson are hardened but not broken junkie wild children, needle thin and barely clinging to the cracked-out, earthly pavement as they stomp through Paris and malled-over America, regretfully scraping their way back from prison after dropping their offspring like puppies and drifting off into good nods. Physically, the two cut through their landscapes like blades, antimaternal babes who happen to have had babies.

Braless, tank-topped, and jiggling through the hood, Gyllenhaal's Sherry has a physical presence that hybridizes the inhibition-free but inappropriately hot mama and the gawky, sunken-chested teen. Slouching through motels and institutions, suburbs and ghettos alike, she's always the riveting center, despite her love for and hunger to be loved by her daughter. Since she kicked in prison, love has become Sherry's drug — she wants to work with kids, she's desperate to take up mothering — and she slyly seduces her daughter with toys, praise, and her alarming, sexualized, chaotic presence from the brother and sister-in-law who raised the girl in safety and warmth.

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