“What Does Motherhood Mean to Me?” wonders Eliza, Uma Thurman’s harried West Village mother of two, as she works her way through a day of tough city living in Katherine Dieckmann’s “Motherhood.” Somewhat sadly, this existential pondering doesn’t spring organically from the material at hand: an episodic catalogue of indignities visited by the evil urban environment upon those who choose to procreate therein. Instead, our heroine, a creative sort left at wit’s end by the mundane distractions of her life, fresh from finishing a quickie post to her mom-blog “The Bjorn Identity,” is sparked to answer this rather large question by a crude pop-up internet ad announcing a writing contest — 500 words on being a mom could be Eliza’s ticket back into a regular writing gig and the adult workforce.
No sooner has Eliza found opportunity knocking than Dieckmann whip-zooms to a calendar garishly scribbled with a notice about daughter Clara’s impending sixth birthday party, set for later in the day we’re witnessing, the same day as the deadline for the contest, thus setting in motion the film’s twinned narratives and themes: balance between the needs of children and the needs of the parent. “30 Rock” episodes often build themselves around such narratively inconvenient confluences sketched out in brief before the show’s madcap credits, only to launch from this sitcomy footing into unimaginable feats of absurdity (I’d love to see an afternoon with Mama Lemon juggling a baby and an impending TGIS episode sketched out in 22 minutes). Dieckmann’s reliance on the tried-and-true only highlights “Motherhood”‘s links to convention.
For a movie intended to hum with the rhythms of daily life, “Motherhood” feels like the product of a tidy and neatly rounded-off screenplay. The level of incident contained in this one afternoon registers as unlikely — not Eliza’s briskly hoofing from errand to errand so much as the ways in which the script makes room at each stop for her to engage in some sort of confrontation with a city archetype (hippie mom, flamboyant queen, annoying hipster, lesbian baker, soulful brown bike messenger) that leaves her either a near-tears punchline, or huffing, outraged and indignant. (The less said about the particularities of the dialogue, most especially several strained references to 9/11, the better.) It should go without saying that in this kind of construction all the scattered incidents of the day wind their way cleanly toward resolution. Sure, this is how screenplays are supposed to work, but most days just don’t work like this.
Dieckmann’s intentions with “Motherhood” are spot on — I can’t think offhand of another film interested in miring itself in the quotidian minutiae of an average mom — but her autobiographical impulses (“write what you know,” they say) muddy the waters of identification with Eliza. For instance: Eliza and her husband share two rent-stabilized apartments in the West Village — one is used for living and one for a studio. This mirrors Dieckmann’s own life. But it’s an unnecessary specificity, one that plays as confusing early on (we see Eliza leave her bed, exit her apartment and enter another to make breakfast) resulting in a terribly awkward explanation later as Eliza argues over her lost parking spot:
Surly Guy in Car: “You live in the West Village so you can afford to park someplace else.”
Eliza: “You can say that, but you’d be wrong. My apartment is right there. Rather, I should say, our apartments.”
Surly Guy in Car (incredulous): “You’ve got more than one apartment?”
Eliza: “They’re rent-stabilized, and one is a studio.”
What this exchange adds to character or the advancement of the narrative is inexplicable (on a purely structural level, it answers the early spatial ambiguity which could have easily been omitted). But it subtracts further from the generalized sympathy built by the film’s opening, in which Eliza’s face goes unseen by Dieckmann’s camera as she goes about her everyday morning rituals. Who has two apartments, rent-stabilized or not?
Even if Dieckmann had experienced exactly the day witnessed in “Motherhood,” it’d still need to be translated for the screen in a relatable fashion; Eliza’s supposedly everywoman travails seem too wedded to a particular class experience. It’s a fine line to walk, between neutering character and closing off empathy, and I’m sure audiences everywhere, and yes, especially mothers, will see something of themselves in Eliza, but I wonder about the immersive, realistic, open-ended “Motherhood” that might have been.
[An indieWIRE review from Reverse Shot.]