Canadian filmmaker Carl Bessai has evoked mixed reactions with his previous work. While he’s garnered a handful of award nominations and wins, most of his films have received, at best, a lukewarm response. His characters have been tapped as unrelatable, and his plots unengaging or forced. And now he’s back with Mothers & Daughters, and I imagine the film should challenge these complaints with its welcome familiarity.
Using a small crew and a number of documentary techniques, Bessai outlines the lives of six women. Micki is a romance novelist whose life is too entwined with her 20-something daughter, Rebecca. They live together, and Micki relies on Rebecca for validation while Rebecca resents the pressure of her mother’s presence in her life.
Meanwhile, Brenda is the archetypal invisible mother and wife who has given up her self to fill the role that marriage and a child brought to her life. Her edgy, silent nervousness is amplified when her daughter Kate relays an e-mail from her husband stating that he’s started a family with another (younger) woman and is never coming home.
And finally, there’s Celine. She is a Mtis house painter who quickly becomes intertwined with a client, Cynthia, who is a young, single, professional homeowner. While not related, their relationship quickly evolves into something of a mother and daughter – full of both care and tension-laced resentment.
While the film is based on the interpersonal relationships of women, it is done so in a way that can ring true for any relationship with a mother or daughter – as a mother, sister, daughter, brother, father, or son. This is because the film relies on the moments where personal lives become interpersonal roadblocks, and the confusing politics of loving someone, but not necessarily liking or understanding them. Micki and Rebecca are the best example of this. While Micki is disappointed in her daughter’s disaffected love interest (rightly so), and makes a fuss about his invitation to her party, Rebecca is disappointed with the male friends her mother keeps. They “like” her, or so they say, but don’t seem all that loving or supportive.
What keeps this film from drowning in inaccessible or sappy melodrama is Bessai’s production technique. After a long, 3-month workshopping period, he filmed these stories in just 10 days, intermingling scenes of interaction with faux documentary interviews where each subject relates their thoughts on their relationships with their mother or daughter. Serious moments are balanced with humor, and all is plainly laid out rather than amplified for effect.
While Mothers & Daughters is not the sort of film that grabbed onto my heart, it has nevertheless stuck with me. This is the type of feature that challenges classic notions and techniques that are suffocating the world of women-centric media. It offers an alternative – one that sometimes dips into sap just like it sometimes dips into happiness, but does it all with respect.