Filminism: Daughters

Written by Film, Filminism

Join Kelly Stitzel as she explores the many facets of women in film in her new monthly column. This month, inspired by the HBO mini-series Mildred Pierce, she discusses some of her favorite daughters in film.

So, have we all been watching the Todd Haynes-directed Mildred Pierce mini-series on HBO? By now, episodes 1-3 have already aired, with the final two installments scheduled to premiere this coming Sunday, April 10th. I have certainly enjoyed it. I can’t say it’s the most uplifiting film I’ve ever seen — far from it — but the performances have been fantastic and Haynes’s impeccable attention to detail is present in its full glory. I’m betting that when awards season roles around, practically everyone involved will be nominated — Winslet is certainly a shoe-in for best actress for her portrayal of the titular role and I’m hoping that Mare Winningham gets recognized for her excellent turn as Ida Corwin.

Haynes definitely has a more realist take on the source material, the 1941 novel by James M. Cain, than had Michael Curtiz’s 1945 version starring Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’ve never read the novel, but I think there’s a place in this world for both adaptations.

As I’ve been watching this epic “mini-series event,” I’ve been thinking a lot about the tempestuous relationship between Mildred and her oldest daughter, Veda, in this version played by Morgan Turner and Evan Rachel Wood. The bratty, entitled Veda got me thinking about other daughters in film and I thought it might be interesting to explore that topic, especially since it’s one I’ve rarely seen covered.

Of course, I’m not going to discuss every daughter portrayed in film — that would take ten years. And some that originally made my list I’ve held back to include in a future piece about sisters. So, these are just some of my favorites — daughters that, for one reason or another, have made an impression on me.

Who are your favorite daughters in film? Tell me in the comments!

Also, a quick warning: most of these clips are NSFW and could be kind of spoilery.

Tracy Freeland, Thirteen
Stephanie, The Wrestler
(Evan Rachel Wood)

Evan Rachel Wood is no stranger to playing volatile daughters in film. In addition to her turn as adult Veda in Haynes’s Mildred Pierce, Wood made a name for herself playing Tracy, the rebellious teenage daughter of Holly Hunter in the acclaimed Thirteen. And recently, she turned in a strong performance in a much smaller role as Mickey Rourke’s estranged daughter in one of my favorite films of the past 10 years, The Wrestler. Both of these characters have an angry vulnerability that makes you feel sorry for them and want to smack them at the same time — much like Veda, though I’ve yet to see the episodes of Pierce in which Wood appears.

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Flora McGrath, The Piano
Alison Kantrowitz, A Walk on the Moon
(Anna Paquin)

It would seem that the ticket to stardom for a young actress might very well be playing Holly Hunter’s daughter. It worked for Wood and it worked for Anna Paquin (and to a lesser extent, for Claire Daines). Now probably most known for her portrayal of Sookie Stackhouse on True Blood, Paquin took Hollywood by storm when she won an Academy Award at the age of 11 playing Flora, the young daughter of Hunter’s mute Ada in The Piano. Flora was not only her daughter, but also acted as her mother’s interpreter, forging a very special bond between the two. But their relationship is not without its difficulties, as Flora does not approve of the affair that her mother is involved in and angrily acts out, to dire consequence. (Warning: this clip has a pretty graphic moment.)

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Another daughter role that I think Paquin excels in is that of Alison Kantrowitz in A Walk On the Moon. This time, Paquin plays a Jewish teenager learning about life, love, heartache and betrayal at the Jewish fish-bowl camp in upstate New York where she and her family spend the summer of ’69. Alison is the oldest child of Pearl and Marty (Diane Lane, Lieve Schreiber) who had her when they were just 17 and want to make sure she doesn’t make the same mistakes they did. Of course, as does any teenager, Alison is judgmental of her parents and can’t stand being around them — until she’s threatened with the possibility of them breaking up.

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Casey Brodsky (Drew Barrymore), Irreconcilable Differences

When I was a kid, I used to watch this movie every time it was on cable. And for years, I didn’t even know what it was called — my brother and I always just called it “that movie where Drew Barrymore divorces her parents.” I think what always drew (no pun intended) me to this film was the exotic concept of a child divorcing her parents. Not that I wanted to divorce my parents — my folks are great and, even though they eventually divorced each other, I would never want to legally not be their daughter. But the idea that it could, and did, happen was just so fascinating to me.

What made Casey interesting to me was that she didn’t want to divorce her parents (played by Ryan O’Neal and Shelley Long) for selfish, immature or professional reasons — Barrymore was herself emancipated from her parents at the age of 15 — but because she was genuinely concerned for her own well-being, realizing that her parents were more interested in themselves than in her and the only way she could have a normal, healthy childhood was by not living with them anymore. I wonder how many kids with bad home lives who saw this film thought of Casey as a hero and were inspired by the film to try and divorce their own parents? I’m guessing that, unless there was some serious abuse going on, they probably would’ve had a more diffiuclt time winning a case like that than Casey did.

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Lucy McFadden (Quinn Cummings), The Goodbye Girl

The Goodbye Girl is one of my favorite movies of all time and one of my favorite parts about it is the excellent — and Oscar-nominated — performance by Quinn Cummings as Lucy, the daughter of Marsha Mason’s Paula, described by her mother as “born 26.” Lucy reminds me a lot of me as a child — quick-witted, sharp-tongued and incredibly mature for her age. She can keep up adult conversations and, most of the time, had three times the maturity of any grown-up in her life. Within the first ten minutes of the movie — which you can watch below — you can tell that Lucy is going to be an anchor in her mother’s life and might actually be the adult in the relationship.

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Ellen Gulden (Renee Zellweger), One True Thing

I saw this movie in the theater with my mother just a few short years after my maternal grandmother’s death and it was one of the most difficult filmgoing experiences I’ve ever had. I’m honestly brought to tears just thinking about it. While I don’t think One True Thing is the best movie ever made, I do have an intense emotional connection to it, especially now that my parents are getting older and I just went through a very difficult medical scare with my father last year. Though I didn’t have to move in with and take care of my dad, like Ellen does with her mother, I do relate to her in many ways, including her reaction to the news of the illness. It’s not easy to admit, but it’s hard not to worry about how a situation like that is going to affect your life. You want to be a good daughter and take care of the people who raised you, but at the same time, it’s really hard to make that sacrifice.

This is also one of the few performances by Zellweger that I can tolerate. Her chemistry with her onscreen parents (William Hurt, Meryl Streep) is fantastic and you really feel as though they’re a family. I rarely get sucked into obvious tearjerkers, but I can’t help it with this one; I’m not made of stone.

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Margot Tenenbaum (Gwyneth Paltrow), The Royal Tenenbaums

She may not be a conventional choice when discussing examples of daughters in film, but Margot Tenenbaum is definitely one of the most interesting. Constantly introduced by her father, Royal (Gene Hackman), as “my adopted daughter, Margot Tenenbaum,” Margot’s life is shaped by how her parents, and siblings, perceive her. She longs for acceptance and does whatever she can to please her parents. But when her successes as a child prodigy don’t seem to be enough, she rebels, secretly becoming a smoker and eventually leaving home to embark on a variety of wild, sordid adventures. Ultimately, though, she feels the most comfortable in her childhood home with her family, regardless of how fucked up they all are.

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Christina Crawford (Diana Scarwid/Mara Hobel), Mommie Dearest

I don’t think you can talk about portrayals of mothers in film without discussing Mommie Dearest, and I certainly don’t think you can discuss daughters in film without talking about Christina. Oh, Christina. When I was a child, and would watch this movie, I took mental notes of some of Christina’s bitchier looks and punchiest zingers. Not that I wanted to be like her, nor was my own mother like Joan Crawford (as portrayed by Faye Dunaway). But I figured that I could alter them for my own use at a future date just so that my parents would know that I meant business when they pissed me off.  Rebellious and confused, Christina represented everything I imagined was wrong with being the child of a big Hollywood star. And she made me glad that my parents were just regular folk with zero noteriety.

If you ask fans of this film to name their favorite scene, you’ll likely get “the wire hanger scene” or “Joan in the boardroom” as your answer. But this is mine. In fact, I’ve jokingly used the “I am not one of your FANS” line with my mother when we were in the middle of a fight, just to lighten the mood. Thankfully, she did not react to that statement as Joan did.

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Jane Burnham (Thora Birch), American Beauty

I think that Jane Burnham is what could’ve happened to Casey Brodsky had she not divorced her parents. She’s miserable, living with two miserable, angry people who are more interested in themselves and fighting with each other than they are what’s going on with their daughter — unless, of course, being interested in their daughter suits them. Lester (Kevin Spacey) decides that having a better relationship with Jane might bring him closer to her best friend, Angela (Mena Suvari), whom he lusts after. And Carolyn (Annette Bening) only seems interested in her daughter for the fact having family that looks normal and happy is good for her career. So, naturally, Jane gets involved with her slightly “off” neighbor, Ricky, with whom she indulges in fantasies of getting rid of her disgusting ‘rents. Of course she doesn’t follow through with those fantasies. She doesn’t have toher parents are excellent at destroying themselves.

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Mia (Katie Jarvis), Fish Tank

Much of 15-year-old Mia’s life, and the decisions she makes, are dictated by the volatile relationship she has with her mother, Joanne (Kierston Wareing), who drinks too much, smokes too much and is more worried about partying than parenting. To escape her terrible home life, Mia steals away to an empty apartment in her building and practices a variety of hip-hop dances she’s choreographed, with the hopes of making it big as a dancer and getting away from her ridiculous mother, who wants to send her away to boarding school to straighten her out — or rather, get rid of her. With the arrival of her mother’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender), who is a calming presence in the house, things begin to calm somewhat between mother and daughter. But Mia and Connor quickly develop a relationship that Joanne doesn’t understand and becomes jealous of — for good reason.

Fish Tank is one of my favorite films of the past five years and Jarvis, who had no previous acting experience before being cast in this film, is a revelation. Her portrayal of Mia is raw and real and you really understand where she’s coming from and what she’s going through. Mia is a complicated girl — what teenager isn’t? — who sometimes makes it really hard to root for her.

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Clarice “Precious” Jones (Gabourey Sidibe), Precious

In some alternate film universe, I think that Mia from Fish Tank winds up in New York City, working as a hip-hop dancer, and makes friends with Precious Jones, who has written a book about her troubled childhood, tours the country talking to teenagers about how to overcome abuse and living with HIV, and who owns her own PR firm, representing hip-hop artists who sometimes ask her to appear in their videos as a thank you for all her hard work. The pair would meet backstage at one of Precious’s client’s shows, in which Mia is dancing, and would bond over their fucked up childhoods and their terrible mothers who treated them like shit. Precious would mentor Mia and eventually take her on as a client, turning her into a huge star in the likes of J. Lo. And then she’d write another book about how to be awesome, despite people telling you you’re not.

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