If you were judging by Mother’s Day cards alone, you’d think all mother-daughter relationships consist of nothing but gushing gratitude, wise advice, and the occasional arrangement of vaginal-looking flowers. But for most of us, mother-daughter relationships are a bit more complex. Our relationships with our moms can have incredibly high-highs and shockingly low-lows, often over the course of the same two-hour Sunday brunch. And that complexity can feel tough to deal with around Mother’s Day, when the world is hellbent on selling you the most saccharine vision of mother-daughter relationships possible.
Consider this list our counter-programming. Below, you’ll find 10 movies about complex, sometimes agonizing, sometimes alienating relationships between mothers and daughters — not all with happy endings (just like some real-life mother-daughter relationships).
Whether you watch them before celebrating Mother’s Day with your mom, after celebrating Mother’s Day with your mom, or instead of celebrating Mother’s Day with your mom, they’ll make you feel entertained, understood, and just a little bit less alone.
This comedy about a free-wheeling single mom raising two daughters in early ‘60s Massachusetts has an absolutely stacked cast — Cher! Winona Ryder! Christina Ricci in her cinematic debut! But you might be just as drawn to the hilarious-yet-relatable conflict between Cher and Ryder, as a mother and daughter with clashing values who eventually win each other’s respect.
Anywhere But Here (1999)
If you’ve ever felt like you raised your mom as much as she raised you, this is the film for you. Susan Sarandon stars as the giddy, impractical Adele — a middle-aged woman with a teenager’s ideas about love and stability. Her daughter, Ann (Natalie Portman), is often forced to be the adult, and looks down on Adele’s freewheeling ways. Over the course of this dramedy, each chase their dreams, and try to eventually come to understand the role they play in each other’s lives.
Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022)
If you haven’t yet seen this hilarious, genre-hopping, sci-fi mash-up that swept the 2022 Academy Awards: do it right now, and bring some tissues. Michelle Yeoh won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Evelyn, a frustrated woman in midlife tangling with the IRS, struggling to relate to her adult daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) and pondering a divorce from her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan). But in another universe, Evelyn is a martial arts expert, and the only person who can save humanity from destruction…but only if she can figure out what she wants from life, and how to relate to Joy. And in another universe…you know, honestly, just see it, and prepare to think about laundry and taxes in a whole new way.
Grey Gardens (1975)This classic documentary follows a mother and adult daughter (both named Edie) who live in seclusion in a crumbling estate dubbed “Gray Gardens” and give new meaning to the word “eccentric.” Are Big Edie and Little Edie experiencing folie a deux? Is Big Edie holding Little Edie back? Or are they living the exact lives they want to live? You’ll be asking yourself all these questions for a long time after watching (you will also probably be asking yourself if you can pull off a Little Edie-style vintage fur coat, to which I say: yes!).
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
America Ferrara made her film debut as Ana Garcia, a high school senior who dreams of going to college and pursuing a career away from home — a dream that clashes with the expectations of her mother, the brutally critical and body-shaming Carmen. Carmen wants Ana to work at the family business, lose weight, get married, and live a traditional life in Los Angeles, and doesn’t care if Ana’s own plans differ. It’s a film for anyone who has ever fought for their right to be themselves, not their mother’s idea of who they should be — and it skips the pat happy ending, opting instead for a more complex and realistic depiction of going your own way.
Lady Bird (2017)
Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saorise Ronan) is whimsical, impractical and dramatic — all qualities that rub her practical and short-fused mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), the wrong way. Their personality clash leads to almost constant conflict between the two during Lady Bird’s senior year of high school, in this Oscar-nominated coming of age dramedy. Over the course of one year, Lady Bird learns about love, life, being herself, and supporting the people she loves — all lessons that help her and Marion eventually figure out how to make peace.
Joy Luck Club (1993)
Based on the best-selling novel by Amy Tan, this film follows two generations — a group of Chinese immigrant women who travel to America, and their Chinese-American daughters — as they make their ways in life, struggle with an often-oppressive and misogynist world, and try (and often fail) to understand each other. A tear-jerker par excellence, the Joy Luck Club is also notable for being the first Hollywood film with all Asian-American leads.
Postcards from the Edge (1990)
You don’t have to already be a fan of Carrie Fisher to enjoy this film, which is written by her and based on her autobiographical novel of the same name. But if you are, you will absolutely delight in Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Suzanne Vale, an actress who must deal with the twin burdens of a substance abuse problem and being forced to live with her narcissistic movie star mother, Doris (Shirley MacLaine). Does that not sound funny? It’s very funny (especially during an infamous scene about an inadvertent flashing incident during a birthday party).
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Joan Crawford (truly the mother of all problematic mothers) won the Oscar for the Best Actress for her role as Mildred, a frumpy housewife turned glamorous restaurant entrepreneur who does everything for her nightmarishly spoiled teenaged daughter Vida (played with angelic vitriol by Ann Blyth) with murderous results. It's a film noir, a melodrama and a master class in why Crawford is the grand dame of old Hollywood. Even if you've seen the 2011 remake miniseries with Kate Winslet, you must check out the original for the full Crawford effect.
The Glass Castle (2017)
In this adaptation of the blockbuster memoir, successful journalist Jeannette Walls (Brie Larson) recalls a difficult, unpredictable childhood lived in poverty and chaos with her three siblings and her negligent parents, mercurial alcoholic Rex (Woody Harrelson) and self-involved painter Rose Mary (Naomi Watts). Walls’s parents are part free-thinking rebels, part abusive nightmares — while Rex ruins the family’s lives whenever he drinks, Rose Mary never warms up to the idea of motherhood, and views her offspring as a burden. Walls’s journey to becoming her own person will resonate with anyone who learned what they didn’t want to be by watching their own mother.
By Gabrielle Moss
Gabrielle Moss is the editor at Stripes. She's the author of Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire and elsewhere.