Motherhood may be complex and many-splendored, but there are few feature-length films that portray it that way. Instead, on-screen moms tend to be shoved into the strictures of stereotypes, as stifling as a pair of Spanx.
“Mommie Dearest,” the campy 1981 film that makes mothers out to be petty and violent, is an extreme example, but more lighthearted films are guilty of flattening women caregivers, too. Think of the “Freaky Friday” update, wherein Jamie Lee Curtis is power suit-clad but largely absent and judgmental, falling short of her motherly duties no thanks to her own ambitions. We see a carbon copy of the character in Paul Weitz’s 2015 film “Grandma,” in which a caricature of a power mom barks orders while walking on a treadmill. On the other end of the spectrum, there are mother characters who are doting and without personal wants, and these portrayals lend themselves to schmaltz.
There are, of course, exceptions. Annette Benning and Julianne Moore make a perfect team onscreen as flawed but sympathetic co-parents in “The Kids Are All Right”; Laura Dern shines in “Wild” as a loving and irresponsible mom. A worthy addition to the list: Greta Gerwig’s performance as Maggie in this year’s “Maggie’s Plan,” a screwball comedy about the whims of love, be it romantic or maternal.
The movie, written and directed by Rebecca Miller, begins with a set-up we’ve seen before: a couple of attractive young friends -- a man and a woman -- idly discuss the pros and cons of raising kids. They’re an odd couple. He’s enthusiastic and geeky, she’s bright-eyed and naïve. But their squabbling is benign enough to be endearing. While Maggie (Greta Gerwig) defends her plan to impregnate herself with donated sperm, Tony (Bill Hader) gawks that she’s too young for that, that insemination should be seen as a last resort rather than a plan in itself.
We see where this is headed -- maybe the two will fall in love in spite of their differences! -- but this is a film that, in its undulating liveliness, dodges cliches. Tony and Maggie remain just friends, but Maggie meets a married-yet-charming academic (John, played by Ethan Hawke) around the same time of her planned insemination.
Flash forward a few years, and the two have shacked up along with Maggie’s now toddler Lily. The couple shares custody of John’s two preteen children with his ex-wife Georgette (Julianne Moore), who’s as self-serious as Maggie is aimless. The ensuing dramas comment on parenthood without making judgments about approaches of best fit; while Georgette deliberately builds a fertile learning environment for the kids, Maggie’s Midwestern work ethic and childlike wonder allow her to embrace motherhood, begrudgingly sacrificing her career goals in the meantime. As her passion for John recedes into resentment -- he spends his days working on a cerebral, labyrinthine novel, neglecting to help around the house -- she devises a plan: reunite John and Georgette, so that she can mother Lily without the added chaos romance has caused her.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Rebecca Miller described why she wanted to create a story that champions maternal love.
“There’s an element of romance in every parental relationship. I don’t mean that in an icky way, I mean that it’s the deepest kind of love,” Miller said. “I think of this as a movie with five love stories in it, and definitely one of the love stories is Lily and Maggie. And maybe for her it’s the primary one.”
Miller is suited to write honestly about motherhood. She and husband Daniel Day-Lewis have parented two sons, Ronan and Cashel, both in their teens. She explained that she does draw material from her own life, but that filmmakers shouldn’t be restricted to doing so.
Not every man who directs a movie about the mafia is himself in the mafia. That means that women might be able to direct films that don’t directly line up with their realm of experience. Rebecca Miller
“I never actually try to do things in that kind of schematic way. I try to let things happen. But because I am a certain way, it just falls out that way,” Miller said. “I’m interested in the female experience. I’m having one. I’m interested in men too, and how we interact and how we affect each other.”
In addition to relating the experience of womanhood, Miller draws the goofy, whirlwind pace of “Maggie’s Plan” from her life. The film repeatedly pokes fun at the tangled, jargon-fueled language of academia, as John and Georgette attend a conference for Ficto-Critical Anthropology, snowed in with a crew of eccentrics. Subsidiary scenes such as these can distract from a central story, but the rapid-fire banter between the pair makes their in-jokes engaging.
“I as a person am a little bit screwball by nature, so I think it was just natural,” Miller said. “I just followed my nose. The humor and the rhythm of it was one of my great joys. It was almost like writing a musical score. It is a language movie in that the humor is carried by the situations but also by the words, and that was really fun.”
Although writing from life is an approach well-suited to the types of films Miller writes and directs -- funny or surreal reflections on contemporary life -- she asserts that expecting women to write about womanhood is restrictive, and further fuels the problem of gender disparity among directors.
“Not every man who directs a movie about the mafia is himself in the mafia. That means that women might be able to direct films that don’t directly line up with their realm of experience,” Miller said. “It’s almost like a quota mentality. I think this goes for women and minorities both. [Movie executives] say, 'We really want a woman to direct this movie.' The minute you say that, you mean that we’re all the same. Any woman could direct this movie, and it doesn’t matter which one?”
She added, decisively: “Really, we have to start thinking of ourselves as individuals. That, for me, is the answer.”