When we first glimpse Meryl Streep as Ricki Randazzo in the new Jonathan Demme–directed, Diablo Cody–scripted film Ricki and the Flash, she’s wearing lace-up platform boots, tight black jeans, and a teal top that’s both sparkly and lacey. Her fingers are piled up with rings, one ear lined with piercings, her décolletage hidden by an enormous fringey necklace. Her hair, in a style that will either become widely adopted or mocked, is flipped over into a deep voluminous side part, like the one Streep rocked more than 30 years ago in Manhattan, but here, the leftover strands are braided into three or four thick cornrows. She picks up a teal guitar that vaguely matches both her shirt and her eye shadow. Ricki is ready to rock.
But then the camera pans out to reveal a life that isn’t so rock ‘n’ roll. There’s the bar she’s playing, a San Fernando Valley dive populated by down-and-out baby boomers and a smattering of young people who want the Flash to cover Lady Gaga and Pink, not Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones. She’s got a day job as a cashier at a Whole Foods–esque grocery store, where her manager is barely legal and demands that she contort her regal Meryl mouth into a Cheshire cat grin to make the customers more comfortable throwing down for hundreds of dollars worth of organics. She lives in a dingy apartment complex with paper-thin walls, loud neighbors, and no elevator (as we learn when she has to bump her wheelie suitcase awkwardly down a long flight of stairs). To put an even finer point on it: She’s recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
But one day the life that Ricki might have had comes knocking. She gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Klein), who reports that their grown daughter Julie (Streep’s real daughter, Mamie Gummer) is back at home, spiraling into despair after discovering that her husband is leaving her for another woman. Pete’s second wife, a domestic goddess named Maureen (Audra McDonald) who “makes the best brioche French toast,” is off in the Pacific Northwest caring for her ALS-afflicted father. Can Ricki come home to help?
Ricki and the Flash is about what happens when a bad mother tries to find a place in her children’s lives, decades too late. But it’s also about the expectations we place on mothers that we don’t think to place on fathers. Why, for example, does Pete need a woman around to handle a crisis with his own daughter? Would Mick Jagger have written such great songs, bemoans Ricki on stage later in the movie, if he had stuck around to parent all those little Jaggers?
Post phone call, Ricki’s past comes pouring out. She used to live in Indianapolis; she used to go by the name Linda Brummel; she used to be married to a financial analyst; she and Pete have three children, all now grown. At some point, Linda left to become Ricki, Maureen took over, visits were few and far between, and now everybody hates mom.
The movie revels in the contrast between what is and what might have been. Ricki can’t afford to pay her cab fare from the airport to Pete’s house. Standing in the foyer of Pete’s subdivision McMansion she can only gawk. “I feel like Jefferson at Monticello,” Pete says sheepishly. “Maureen had to have the Palladian windows.”’
With her cheap rocker clothes, her battered guitar case, her ridiculous hair, Ricki clearly does not belong in this suburban fantasyland of throw pillows and soaking tubs and commodious L-shaped sectionals. What’s less clear is whether she still fits with these people. When her daughter Julie comes screeching downstairs, hair in a bird’s nest, stricken-faced and shrieking that her mom skipped the wedding but showed for the divorce, Meryl knows how to handle her. She knows that what her over-medicated, clinically depressed daughter needs more than yet another therapy session is a new lease on life. She can offer donuts, a haircut, a mani pedi, a trip to the mall to max out Julie’s ex’s credit card. After an ugly run-in with that ex and his new girlfriend, she knows it’s time to raid Pete’s freezer stash of medical marijuana, and get high as a family. “Did you just want to touch me?” she asks when a very stoned Pete puts his head in her lap, feeling feelings better left in the past. Ricki knows that sometimes being slightly irresponsible can remind you that you’re alive.
It’s a lesson that she learned at the expense of being a mother. “Who do you think put together her dorm furniture?” Maureen asks when she comes home to find Ricki in her robe, slipping too easily back into family life. “Who do you think went to that mother-daughter tea at that white sorority?” (Maureen is African-American.) Nobody would claim that Ricki was the mother her kids needed when they were kids. But maybe, the movie seems to suggest, she still has something to offer them as adults?
Maureen may be the saint who swooped in to clean up Ricki’s mess, and Pete may be the parent who stuck around, but the truth is more complicated. On Ricki’s first day back, we learn that as soon as Linda left for California to pursue her music career, Pete moved onto Maureen. When Ricki came home, determined to find a way to make it work, there was no home left for her. It was my dream, Ricki reminds him of why she had to go to California. I thought we were your dream, he says, sadly. I can’t have two dreams? Ricki asks.
It’s a moment that Meryl called attention to in a recent TV appearance on Live with Kelly and Michael. “The movie doesn’t really explain much about why that marriage broke up. There’s clues,” she says. “That accommodation, whatever it was that would have allowed them to stay together: maybe she wanted to go to L.A. to pursue this and he didn’t want to go, because he’s a financial analyst and you can only do that in Indianapolis apparently. But everybody makes up their own reasons why the thing can’t work. I think that’s in that encounter. Someone says you can’t have two dreams. No. That’s not going to work.”
Was it worth it? Ricki Randazzo is no Mick Jagger. She’s not famous, there’s no Grammy, there’s not even that much original material. There’s definitely no retirement plan. But there’s the daily act of playing music for people who love it (and if you need a reason to go see this movie, watching Meryl perform an entire album worth of songs live is utterly captivating). Ricki may not have realized all her dreams, but they didn’t whither on the vine either. “She’s happy,” Meryl tells Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan. And in the end, what she has to give to her kids (being vague so as not to spoil) is a vision of that happiness. They need Maureen, they need Pete, but maybe they need to see that too.
If Ricki Randazzo’s trouble is that she dared to hope for too much, Charlotte Goetze has the opposite problem. The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner’s 2002 graphic novel of the same name, poses the question: How bad is a mom who doesn’t even bother to have her own dreams?
Minnie Goetze (the amazing Bel Powley) is a fifteen-year-old aspiring cartoonist growing up in hedonistic seventies San Francisco, with a nerdy little sister Gretel (Abby Wait) and a hard-partying mom Charlotte (Kristen Wiig). Charlotte, we learn early on, married young, had kids, divorced, then married again to a husband who didn’t believe she should drink or smoke. In what we can assume is a classic case of second-wave feminist awakening, she’s moved on—but not necessarily up. For Charlotte, having her independence means a shitty job at a library, handouts from her ex-husband, a 24-hour party, and a string of boyfriends with whom she can live a less “uptight” lifestyle. “She’s looser now,” Minnie tells us as we watch Charlotte ashing her cigarette on Gretel and snorting lines of coke with friends.
If Charlotte’s bad parenting were limited to her recreational drug use, we might give her a pass (it’s the seventies, after all!). But really her problem is that for all her progressive, feminist ideals, she’s actually permanently infected by retrograde notions of femininity, convinced that a woman’s worth is measured in the attention she gets from men. It’s a fact driven home by her obsession with the Patty Hearst case, which plays out on the TV news in the background. Hearst may have gained her freedom, but mentally she’s still in captivity; Charlotte may call herself a feminist, but she’s actually trapped in a very different mode.
Her parenting style is straight out of the fifties: Serious discussions are verboten and she’ll barely touch her daughter, for fear of Minnie sexualizing the contact. She’s obsessed with Minnie’s appearance, largely as a reflection of her own. “Is that what you wore today?” she says, looking Minnie up and down. “I’m just saying it wouldn’t kill you to show off your waist.” She talks to Minnie conspiratorially about boys, but really it’s just an excuse to brag about her own conquests. ”I was quite a piece when I was your age,” she says. “You’re not going to have that bod forever. I know it’s not feminist of me to say so.”
The irony, of course, is that Charlotte can’t see what’s going on under her nose: Minnie is sleeping with Charlotte’s boyfriend, the 30-something, mustachioed Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Through adult eyes, we can see that Monroe is kind of a loser; he lays around, slurping cereal and watching cartoons, and his goal in life is to retire at 45 after making his fortune through some kind of vitamin-selling pyramid scheme. But it’s easy enough to see why fifteen-year-old Minnie, consumed by her newfound sexuality, might not be able to see that. And it’s also easy enough to get why emotionally immature, self-deluding Monroe might be attracted to Minnie’s guileless passion, her untapped raw potential, her wholehearted belief in his worthiness.
As Minnie comes into her sexuality, sharing a man with her unwitting (or deliberately blind) mother, sampling the drugs her mother takes, drifting from the periphery of the party to the center, we have to wonder if she’s doomed to share Charlotte’s fate. If it were up to Charlotte, as we see in a disturbing climactic confrontation at the end of the movie, it might be the case. But Minnie has something Charlotte doesn’t: a calling to be an artist, the conviction that she has something concrete and creative to offer. The only thing that trumps Minnie’s constant stream of sexual fantasies is her fantasies about the lives of the cartoonists she admires and emulates. “I bet they’re happy,” she speculates about Robert Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb. “I wish I knew someone who was happy.”
Later, she writes Kominsky-Crumb a letter, and eventually she hears back. “Keep drawing those comics,” the cartoonist writes. “I use India ink too.” It’s not much, but it’s the best bit of parenting Minnie gets. And in her case it’s enough. “I always thought I wanted to be just like my mom,” Minnie realizes eventually. “But she thinks she needs a man to be happy. I don’t.”
The kids, it seems, are going to be just fine. The parents, on the other hand: they’ve got problems.
The post I’m Not a Regular Mom, I’m a Bad Mom: Terrible Parenting Hits the Big Screen appeared first on Vogue.
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