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Fierce Attachments: The 11 Most Memorable Mother/Daughter Pairings

Fierce Attachments: The 11 Most Memorable Mother/Daughter Pairings

The relationship between a mother and her daughter is usually intense. An enormous amount of projection is involved—many mothers want their daughters to have a better life than they did, and see themselves vicariously reflected in the younger woman—but with that kind of love also comes great responsibility, resentment and disappointment. Daughters cannot always please their mothers, and mothers don’t always know what is best for their daughters. Still, each woman will have a profound and lasting impact on the other, no matter what the circumstances. 
Big and Little Edie, the eccentric aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the stars of “Grey Gardens,” lived in a dilapidated mansion infiltrated by documentarian Albert Maysles and his camera. He captured their peculiar bond in what is now an iconic documentary. The Edie’s were recluses, cut off from other people and their normal customs. This mother-daughter dynamic is fascinating to witness; each woman desperately needs the other, but resents their co-dependence. Little Edie gave up a career as a fledgling actress to care for her aging mother, and left alone together, the two women descend into a solipsistic world of their own making. 
In honor of the lovely “Grey Gardens” restoration now playing at the Film Forum, and the recent death of the film’s legendary director Albert Maysles, we’ve put together a list of some of the most memorable cinematic mother/daughter pairings. 
READ MORE: How ‘Grey Gardens’ Was Restored to Its Squalid Glory (and Why You Need to See It)

Terms of Endearment” (1983)

Exceptional acting and a surprising script prevented this James L. Brooks classic from being just another corny tearjerker. The film’s dialogue is unexpected and off-beat. The dramedy follows Aurora (Shirley MacLaine) and her daughter Emma (Debra Winger) over a period of 30 years, as they interchangeably battle and support one another through marriages, losses and betrayals. Winger, with blue eyes and wild dark hair, gives the performance of a lifetime as Emma, simultaneously passionate, vulnerable, and more believably human than most actors ever appear on the big screen. Pauline Kael detested “Terms of Endearment,” but she loved Winger. Maclaine won the Oscar for her portrayal of Aurora, a tough and restless mother who isn’t quite sure how to connect with her daughter, but vows to protect her at any cost. Aurora nervously hovers over Emma’s crib when she is born, worried she isn’t breathing. Aurora keeps waking her up just to be sure, as baby Emma wails in protest. Jack Nicholson has a great turn as Garrett, a roguish astronaut who moves in next door to Aurora and flirts with her lewdly from across the fence (he also won the Oscar that year). Aurora warns her daughter against a marriage to Flap (Jeff Daniels), a simple man who isn’t good enough for her. Aurora is right, of course, but this doesn’t stop Emma from marrying and procreating with Flap anyway. In one of the best death scenes of all time, Winger delivers a speech to her young sons that is both heart-wrenching and pitch perfect, without a note of phoniness. No audience could be left unconvinced by the fierce attachment between these two women—who violently disagree about everything, but care too much about each other to let the other go.  

Coraline” (2009)

This darkly fantastical stop-motion animation was adapted from Neil Gaiman’s book of the same name, and though it’s marketed for children, I’m sure it has freaked out viewers of all ages. “Coraline,” directed by Henry Selick of “Nightmare Before Christmas” fame, is grey, spooky and unsettling. It tells the story of an unhappy young girl with blue hair whose family has moved to a new house in a new town. Coraline is lonely and bored; her mom and dad are too busy for her. Both parents spend most of their time looking at computer screens. Plus, her dad’s cooking is bad. Soon Coraline stumbles upon a secret door to an alternate dimension, where she meets her self-proclaimed “other mother” and “other father.” These two are quite similar to her real parents—except they have buttons for eyes. They are also attractive, lively and have plenty of time to play with Coraline. Her “other mother” loves tramping outside in the mud, while Coraline’s real mother hates the mess. In this brave new world, Coraline’s parents exist only to dote on and listen to her. Her new mother dolls herself up and cooks all her favorite meals; her new father is less haggard and over-worked. Eventually, Coraline realizes this all has a sinister undertone, when her new mother reveals she wants her to stay in the alternate universe forever, an unpleasant sacrifice that involves gauging out her eyes and sewing buttons there instead. This “other mother” has fashioned a world with the express purpose of seducing Coraline and taking her prisoner. When the truth is revealed, the mother sloughs off her disguise and regresses into her true grotesque form, with a hunched back and a cruel, gaunt face. The fake universe Coraline discovers seems ideal at first, but the relationships she cultivates there aren’t real. Parents are fully realized people before they become parents; so they should be allowed to have alternate interests and passions. In the real world, a mother will rarely do exactly what her children want her to, or meet all their expectations. She will annoy and disappoint them endlessly. But if you love someone, those dissatisfactions are worth it. 

“Mermaids” (1990) 

“Mermaids” features a delightful cast of actresses playing a family in 1960’s Massachusetts. Rachel (Cher) is an unmarried, nomadic mother, with 15-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder) and 9-year-old Kate (Christina Ricci). All three are dark-haired beauties and women who aren’t so easy to deal with; frankly, they’re a bit high maintenance. Rachel’s promiscuity forces the family to pick up and move constantly (18 times, by Charlotte’s last count). Every time Rachel’s latest love affair goes bust, she takes her girls on the road. Rachel is bawdy and independent; she piles on makeup, wigs, and doesn’t need a man for anything more than carnal satisfaction. Her daughter Charlotte has rebelled in perhaps the only way she can—by practicing extreme piousness, and vowing to become a nun. Cher’s portrayal of a mother figure is a little over-the-top, but that’s the only way Cher knows how to do it. Rachel is loud-mouthed and largely unsympathetic, keeping her tender maternal instincts entirely at bay. She doesn’t cook, but gives her daughters finger foods to eat. Ryder is equally captivating as Charlotte, a delicate girl with gothic beauty who thinks it’s a sin to have normal sexual thoughts. She’s completely ignorant about sex, but has grown more wildly curious amidst her self-inflicted repression. “How do I look?” Rachel asks her daughter before going on a date. “Like a woman about to go forth in sin,” Charlotte replies. “Oh good, exactly the look I was hoping for,” the unapologetic Rachel fires back. These characters are realistically pretty crazy, but the movie portrays them as more colorful and endearing than mentally imbalanced. The actors are so zany in these roles, the end result is charming. 

“Matilda” (1996)

Danny DeVito directs and stars in this seamless adaptation of the frightening and brilliant Roald Dahl novel. The tale “Matilda” weaves is chilling: a small girl comes to understand that her parents neither understand nor love her. Luckily, Matilda also develops psychokinetic powers, allowing her to finally take charge of her own life. The starring role belongs to Mara Wilson, a child actress who seems incredibly self-possessed and precocious. She wants to be taken seriously—but she’s also really damn cute. Matilda’s parents are played with great zeal by DeVito and real-life wife Rhea Perlman. DeVito’s father figure is a sleazy used car salesman, and Perlman is a bimbo with bleached hair. They make an amusing and outrageous pair—managing to be stupid, lazy, and ignorant without even trying. Not only do they forget how old their daughter is (they think Matilda is four, but she’s actually six), they also hate everything about her. They especially hate that she reads books, because they only like to watch TV—but Matilda wishes to escape and to learn. The story is about how parents aren’t always people who will do right by you. They don’t necessarily know what’s best or what they’re doing. “Matilda” is a gem for many reasons, especially due to the presence of a monstrous villain named Mrs. Trunchbull, a school principal who terrorizes children. Contrastingly, Matilda’s first-grade teacher is a kind and gentle soul aptly christened Ms. Honey. When Matilda’s parents are forced to make a run from the police, they allow her to remain behind with Ms. Honey; this is the first decent thing they’ve ever done for their daughter. “You’re my only daughter, Matilda—and I’ve never really understood you,” Matilda’s mom tells her truthfully, before signing the adoption paperwork. Ms. Honey and Matilda deserve each other, after years of shared starvation for love and companionship. Honey appreciates Matilda’s intellect, and in the last shot of the film, we see them reading “Moby Dick” together before bed. As any six-year-old would. 

“Thirteen” (2003)

“Thirteen” features then-newcomer Evan Rachel Wood as Tracy, the timid teenage daughter of divorced ex-alcoholic Melanie, played by the extremely capable Holly Hunter with insight and grace. Tracy falls under the influence of a wild crowd after befriending Evie (Nikki Reed), a popular girl at school who is mature beyond her years. Evie gets Tracy involved in drugs, crime, sex and plenty more depravities inappropriate for someone so young. Melanie runs a beauty salon in her kitchen, and her house is regularly flooded with friends and acquaintances who need to crash, even when Melanie cannot afford to give them much. She’s so preoccupied, she doesn’t realize how much trouble her daughter is in until it’s almost too late. It’s easy for teenagers to slink around and hide things; Tracy sneaks out at night and gets high in her bedroom right under her mother’s nose. The film’s most effective scene comes when Melanie discovers Tracy has been cutting herself. Melanie grabs her daughter’s arms and forcibly kisses the cuts, while Tracy sobs, wanting to hide her anguish—but Melanie exposes her. It’s terrible for a mother to see her child in pain and be helpless to fix it. Yet as Melanie holds Tracy in a tight embrace, that seems to be enough. 

“Precious” (2009)

“Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” debuted very favorably, thanks in part to hyping of the film by Oprah, who appears to rule the entire world. The characters in the story share the burdens of illiteracy, poverty, obesity and anger—as well as an eagerness to acquire welfare through dishonest means. Precious (Gabourey Sidibe) is piled with a seemingly infinite load of problems. Mo’Nique plays Mary, Precious’ abusive mother, and she is both impressive and terrifying in the role. Every time she comes on the scene, you will inwardly will Precious to run the other way, and evoking that kind of repulsion from a viewer is commendable. Sidibe is also good, playing subdued, defeated, and resentful. From her comfortable perch in front of the TV, Mary terrorizes her daughter, throws things at her head, and verbally berates her—while Precious secretly attends an “alternative” high school, because she feels alone in the largeness of her current public institution. Mary has no moments of tender-heartedness or weakness, and she never once budges from the position of hatred she holds for her daughter. Mary is consumingly jealous of Precious, since her husband (and Precious’ own father), repeatedly raped Precious and has gotten her pregnant twice. Mary thinks her man should love and make love only to her. It seems unbelievable that a woman would resent her daughter for being raped, or that Mary never once felt protective over an innocent life completely dependent upon her care. It’s rare to see a story like this one—and Mo’Nique’s turn as Mary demonstrates how some people are just plain nasty, and some women really shouldn’t be mothers. 

Carrie” (1976)

Based on the novel by Stephen King, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” is a horror film with a deliciously satisfying and bloody finale. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a high school girl who develops the power of telekinesis, the ability to move things without touching them. These powers seem to emerge in direct response to her mother (Piper Laurie), a wild-haired religious zealot with a psychotic fear of sexuality, who forces Carrie to remain in the house instead of making any friends or having normal teenage experiences. Throughout most of the film, Carrie remains patient, clearly accustomed to her mother’s ways and possessing a certain amount of loyalty. Carrie treats her mother as though she were simply an overdramatic annoyance, the kind who nags or chides her children, rather than the lunatic watchdog that she is. Her mother routinely locks Carrie in the closet, tells her she’s a sinner for starting her period, and calls Carrie’s breasts “dirty pillows” (a classic line). Timid Carrie is bullied in school, as it’s not easy for a girl with such a mother to fit in with her classmates. In one memorable scene, Carrie starts her period in the gym shower and assumes she’s dying, as her fellow students taunt and throw tampons at her instead of explaining what’s happening. When Carrie is asked to prom, she’s thrilled—but of course, her mother tries to stop her from going, and when talking doesn’t work, she takes a kitchen knife to make her point. Carrie uses her powers to murder her mother before she can harm her irreparably, and then heads off to the prom. Things go well until one of the popular girls plays a cruel trick, dumping pig’s blood on Carrie as she stands on the stage after winning prom queen. Carrie isn’t happy—her blue eyes widen unnaturally and fill with fury, as pig’s blood drips down her face and over her silk dress—and she then uses her powers to destroy everyone who has laughed at her. The prom turns into a blood bath, as Carrie bolts the doors and kills students and teachers off one by one. “Carrie” demonstrates the psychological consequences of familial abuse, social isolation and high school bullying in a macabre and iconic revenge story; sooner or later, a victim may grow tried of being victimized, and hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.  

Imitation of Life” (1959)

Douglas Sirk’s weepy melodrama and final film is a remake of a 1934 movie by the same name dealing with issues of class, race and gender in 1950’s America. Characters are always sobbing dramatically in Sirk pictures, and this one is no exception, but don’t be deceived by its tearjerking—the story is actually quite dark and pessimistic. “Imitation of Life” is about two mothers and their respective daughters, living intertwined lives. Lana Turner stars as Lora, an aspiring actress raising her daughter Susie all alone. She meets another single mother on the beach, an African American woman named Juanita (Annie Johnson) whom she hires to work as her housekeeper. Juanita brings her own light-skinned daughter along, a girl named Sarah Jane who detests the reaction she receives when people find out her mother is black and working class. When Lora’s acting career takes off, Juanita becomes responsible for raising both Lora’s daughter and her own. Sarah Jane commonly passes for white, wanting to reap the advantages of the white world, but she is sometimes found out, and the consequences are often dire. In one terrible scene, Sarah Jane’s boyfriend beats her in an alley upon discovering she has lied about the color of her mother’s skin. Juanita is heart-broken by Sarah Jane’s disdain for her true race, but still loves her deeply. Susie is neglected by her own mother, who has become a wealthy and preoccupied actress—and Juanita is more of a mother to Susie than Lora ever was. Juanita selflessly lets her own daughter move away when she comes of age, allowing her to proceed in the world passing for a white girl and cutting ties completely, because that’s what Sarah Jane wants. But when Juanita grows ill and dies, her daughter finally comprehends how selfish she’s been, and shows up to her mother’s funeral procession, beats on her coffin and weeps bitterly. Although the film was not well-respected at the time of release, “The Imitation of Life” has since been lauded as a masterpiece.

“Wild at Heart” (1990)

This violent David Lynch road movie stars Nicholas Cage as Sailor and Laura Dern as Lula. Dern’s real life mother Diane Ladd plays her fictional mother Marietta. The movie is a gaudy, satirical soap opera, with a passionate and unbridled romance at its center. Lula and Sailor make Bonnie and Clyde look like amateurs. In the film’s opening scene, Lula’s evil mother has hired a man to kill her daughter’s boyfriend, Sailor, who seems to be a cross between Elvis Presley and James Dean. When he is attacked by this assassin at the school dance, he beats his attacker to a bloody pulp, smashing his skull wide open before casually lighting a cigarette. Lula and Sailor go on the run, fleeing from her domineering mother—who is in fact angry and vengeful because the studly Sailor at one point rejected her own advances. Marietta hires a detective and a gangster to hunt the pair, bring her daughter back, and murder Sailor. Willem Dafoe plays one of Lynch’s quintessentially unnerving villains, with huge gums and teeth ground down to nubs, who accidentally blows his own head off with a gun in a scene that almost saddled the film with an X rating. “Wild at Heart” is hellish, erotic, darkly intense. It’s also unforgettable—but not for the faint of heart.

Mildred Pierce” (1945 and 2011)

Based on James M. Cain’s 1941 novel, the original 40’s drama film starred Joan Crawford; the story was later adapted into a five-part HBO miniseries directed by Todd Haynes and starring Kate Winslet. The titular heroine lives in Depression-era California, forced to raise her daughters alone and find work to support herself after divorcing a philandering husband. Ambitious and capable, Mildred begins to build a restaurant empire. The film version is distinctly noir; Mildred’s husband is murdered and although Mildred seems suspect, her ungrateful and deceptive daughter Veda actually did it. Mildred struggles to protect Veda, as she is both self-sacrificing and virtuous. In the HBO version, too, Mildred is obsessed with Veda (played by Evan Rachel Wood), believing her to be talented and special—but the miniseries is not a murder mystery. Winslet breathes fresh life into the role, outstanding as a long-suffering single mother alternately expressing anger, shame, maternal love and grief. In both the film and the series, Mildred sacrifices everything for her child, though Veda remains spoiled and scornful of her mother’s efforts. This is a good example of a mother who loves her offspring not wisely, but too well.

“Ponette” (1996)

This poignant French film directed by Jacques Doillon follows four-year-old Ponette (Victoire Thivisol), attempting to process the recent death of her mother. Thivisol is incandescently lovely in the part, her tiny face continually grappling with understanding concepts well beyond her reach. Her performance received well-deserved acclaim, as she was only four at the time of filming. (“In the matter of child acting,” wrote Stanley Kauffmann, “this is the most extraordinary picture I know.”) After Ponette’s mother dies in a car crash, she is left alone with her loving father, and they are both heart-broken. “Never die,” her father makes Ponette promise. “When we get really old?” she asks. “I don’t give a shit. Say ‘I’ll never die,'” her father responds angrily. Ponette temporarily stays at the house of her aunt and two cousins, similarly talented child actors who pal around kindly with the grieving Ponette, though they are sometimes unintentionally cruel, as children tend to be. In an especially brutal scene, Ponette is mocked on the school playground by a little boy for being motherless, while she tries in vain to stand up for herself through a flood of tears. Ponette grows increasingly withdrawn, obsessed with the idea of her mother coming back to life. She prays to God, she waits, she sits alone in the countryside and imagines she’s playing with her mother. Everyone tells Ponette that waiting is futile, and that she won’t come back—but she doesn’t listen. In the film’s final scene, Ponette’s mother suddenly materializes out of thin air, comforting Ponette and making her promise not to be sad anymore. It’s never made clear whether this is an imagined event, or some kind of supernatural miracle. Her mother does give Ponette a red sweater she wasn’t wearing at the start of the scene, and when her father finds her afterwards, he comments “I haven’t seen that sweater in a while.” It doesn’t matter, either way. “Ponette” exhibits the complex process through which small children mature, learn the hard truths of life and transmit the information they cull into knowledge and intelligence. It’s also about the bond between a mother and a daughter, unbroken even in death—for just because the nature of that bond necessarily changes when the body of one is gone, the relationship is no less powerful. Ponette comes to realize she must learn how to be happy, rather than grieving in solitude for the rest of her life. If you can watch this movie without crying, you might be a robot. 

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