26 February 2010


Twelve Things about Mermaids
(This is another assignment for Atlas TV Guide. Watch out for my review in the April issue . . . and for possible spoilers in this post.)

12. My favourite part of Mermaids used to be the "Catholic clutter." Lonely teenager Charlotte Flax may be Jewish (though in a non-religious family), but she has wanted to be Catholic ever since she was in elementary school and saw another "little girl with ashes on her forehead cross herself and chant Hail Marys at a spelling bee."

I'll be the first to admit, though, that all Charlotte's piety is skin deep. For it's not Faith she seeks.

11. It wasn't until this week's viewing that I realised that Charlotte's Catholic yearnings were probably intended to be played for laughs. Unkind laughs. She is the stereotypical pious and devotional Catholic teenager who says she wants to be a nun and "think pure thoughts all day," but is actually obsessed with boys and sex. What saves it from being offensive is that she isn't really Catholic (while the real nuns in the story are all old-school wonderful)--and the fact that she is played by the young Winona Ryder, who charms her way through a role she wears like a second skin.

10. Oh, and there is one beautifully understated sequence in which Charlotte drops all her affectations and seems to discover one of the most beautiful concepts in Catholicism: sorrow for one's sins. (Of course, it's possible that a Jew watching this movie would say she has dropped all her affectations in order to be Jewish at last.)

9. If you want more religious symbolism to chew on, there's the "My Idea of Heaven" theme. Scratch your ears and you'll miss it, but I could weave a 2,500-word Lit Crit paper on it, I think.

8. The one and only Cher is perfectly cast as the twentieth-century version of the "Fallen Woman"--what we used to call a "Liberated Woman."

With a gorgeous mother who goes through inappropriate men the way she goes through tight dresses, no wonder an insecure Charlotte thinks she has to be a nun.

("Charlotte, I know you're planning a celibate life, but with half my chromosomes, I think that might be tough.")

7. I must confess an inordinate love for the transformation from dowdy to sexy. (I always knew you had it in you, Charlotte.) The Old Eve rears her head . . . or maybe it's just the Old Rachel. I wonder how many mothers have as their worst fear the possibility that their beloved daughters will turn out to be exactly like them.

Remember the Aristotelian requirement for a tragedy: anagnorisis, or the protagonist coming face to face with his true self.

("You know . . . you're just one year younger than I was when I had you.")

6. And who has ever been able to forget those words like brickbats: "What's your major? Town Tramp?" . . . "No, Mom. The town already has one."

5. It's about time I put in a word for Christina Ricci, who plays the still innocent and still trusting Kate Flax. Did anyone who saw this in the cinema guess that she would grow up to be one of the most interesting actresses who ever lived?

4. Something else I really wish I could show you is the blue bedroom. There don't seem to be any screen caps I can grab online, but if you start this clip of the movie @5:09, you'll see it! (Be sure to wait for the lamp; it's the best part!) The magic lasts only a few seconds, but it's a true "haunting moment."

3. I saw this movie when I was about Kate's age, and I dreamed about having a bedroom like that, but it was Charlotte I identified with more. Not because she was religious, because, believe it or not, I wasn't always like this, but because we were basically in the same boat. We were both being raised by fashionista single mothers; we both barely knew our fathers; we both had little half-sisters and had been taught to think that was normal; and we both knew that there was something wrong about that--something missing--but couldn't really say what it was.

2. Now let's get to the real beauty of this movie, by putting it in some context. The 1980s was an interesting decade for movies featuring The Single Mother, which they raised to the dignity--or notoriety--of an archetype.

The Karate Kid gave an honest portrayal of a single mother who really is giving parenthood her best shot, but who just can't be the father her son needs. The Goonies camped it up a bit with its trio of baddies: an overbearing mother who keeps her two grown sons tied to her apron strings. Kindergarten Cop, set in the Single Mother Parent Capital of the World, has a similar pair of villains, one of whom comes armed with a rectal thermometer. (Don't ask; just watch. I have a live blog.) Yet it is Mermaids, barely making it into the last month of the 1980s, which is probably the best. For its purpose is not to satirise or to condemn, but to redeem.

Rachel Flax may start the movie as a "Liberated Woman" who only plays by her own rules, but she ends it as a mother who lets her love for her children be what binds her at last.

1. One last thing: the music is great! I mean both the songs from the early 1960s and Jack Nitzche's original score. Here are two really good tracks from the very end . . .

Image Source: a) Mermaids poster, b) Mermaids clip


iolanthe95 said...

Mermaids is a very interesting movie. You've really done it justice here--I love the blue room too.

Speaking of single mothers, I wonder, have you seen Waitress?

I bet it would interest you:


Terry Nelson said...

I love Winona Ryder. I haven't seen the film for years but I recall feeling sorry for her character. I really believed she desired something holy - to be delivered from her crazy situation - and yet it was funny at the same time.

Michael said...

Hey there was a couple of Motown songs in that movie and one from its kissing cousin, Atlantic Records. ;-)

Enbrethiliel said...


Iolanthe: Thanks! It's one of my favourites. I can't believe how well it has aged.

No, I haven't seen Waitress yet. The affair with a married man bit makes me a bit queasy (given that our heroine is also married and pregnant), but if you recommend it, I might give it a try over the summer. =)

Terry: I think Winona played Charlotte that way, but that Charlotte may not necessarily have been written that way. (I guess I'll always love Winona for that, too. I hope she can make a comeback because she truly is a wonderful actress.)

It's such a strange grace, now that you've made me think about it, that it was the nuns who saved Kate and kept Charlotte from ruining her relationship with her mother. Charlotte may not pursue her passion for Catholicism after that point, but it doesn't really seem to matter. Grace was not given to her because she was "good" or on the condition that she continue to give back. It really was a free gift--and the best gift she could have ever received.

Michael: That is one soundtrack truly worth owning!

Holly said...

I loved Mermaids! Cher seems to do these types of roles really well. I think she played a single mother is in 1985's Masks as well.

Enbrethiliel said...


Yes, I remember Mask now! Thanks for reminding me, Holly. =) Cher did a great job there as well.