Twelve Things about Stepmom
12. This movie and I have a love-hate relationship. I love it because it's about an imperfect family made beautiful by love. I hate it because I'm still the very moral age of seven years old when it comes to divorce and I think that the father and mother should have sucked it up and stayed the f*** together until one of them died. That the mother is discovered to be terminally ill before the father and his new girlfriend get married is not a loophole.
It was while I was musing that Stepmom would have been a better movie if Susan Sarandon's character were a ghost that I realised a second viewing was in order for Horror month--particularly this Horror month when I'm also looking at faerie tales.
11. But the whole truth is that what really pushed me over the edge was pulling up my old draft, glancing at the poster, and wanting to knit everything that Sarandon and Julia Roberts are wearing in it. =P Why don't more movies offer knitting or crochet patterns among their promotional materials? That is a serious question, Hollywood. Call me.
10. Back to faerie tales, in which the real mother often is a ghost of sorts, "haunting" the stepmother enough for the latter to want to kill the former's children. Here in Stepmom we get the fascinating twist of the stepmother also getting to be the princess figure, which totally changes things.
that Price Charming came with some baggage
So what are we to make of her? The fact that Julia Roberts was cast to play her is our hint that we're supposed to love her, and yet the uncertainty of the young son's offer to his mother--"If you want me to hate her, I will"--is ours as well. The stepmom character may be a really decent person, but if you want us to focus on the fact that she shouldn't be there, we will do it with the searing heat of a thousand divorce-shaped scars. Of course the movie doesn't want that, which is why we get a convenient scapegoat instead.
9. No, I don't mean the puppy! LOL! The dog is more of a foreshadowing of a half-sibling. Believe me: I would know. =P
8. I refer to the bait-and-switch with divorce and cancer, which appeals to my angry side. It's so subtle that I wonder a little if the writers knew what they were actually saying. We're not allowed to hate the father's new girlfriend . . . but we're allowed to hate the mother's new cancer? Oh, okay. #rollseyes
But is there also a worthy parallel between the slow deterioration of one's body and the slow deterioration of one's marriage? When the mother protests to her oncologist, "But I did everything right! Everything I was supposed to do!" it feels like an echo of what she might have said to her husband a few years earlier. Sometimes life really isn't fair and there's nothing that we can do.
7. Having admitted that the mother was dealt a bum hand, let's consider what this movie would be like if the stepmom met the father after the mother's death. Well, we'd have the exact same character arc for the stepmom--and probably the exact same opening scene in which she scrambles, screwball style, to get the two uncooperative children ready for school. But the "princess" cues would be much stronger: with no mother to relieve her, it would clear that the two children are turning her into a virtual Cinderella.
On the other hand, the "faerie godmother" cues would remain just as subtle--because nobody expects the princess to play both parts. But that is certainly what the stepmom does when she gets a chance to come to the daughter's rescue.
6. So where do you stand on the snow blowing? LOL! If you know what I mean, tell me in the combox. If you don't know, the issue is that the daughter's Prince Charming turns out to be a player with a mean streak. The girl really should have known better, but she was romantic enough to hope that he would be different with her--and well, he was different: he was even worse. The mother's advice to her daughter is sound, but it's the stepmother who swoops in and saves the day. Now the question is whether the stepmom herself "did it right" and "did everything she was supposed to do."
The answer is important because she will be the lone mother figure in the daughter's life years later, when the real Prince Charming arrives and the ball begins.
5. But let's not get our Cinderellas so tangled up that we don't remember that it's the stepmom who will be a basketcase at that ball, worrying that she will be exposed as a fake.
It would be shattering to love the bride with all of your maternal heart . . . and then to find out that the Mother of the Bride slipper doesn't fit your foot . . . whether you are her real mother or not.
4. I'm sad to say that Stepmom gets awfully mawkish after that moment. The Christmas morning scenes, in particular, feel whipped up to stiff, sugary peaks. But I love the gifts that the mother makes for her children. Now that I myself have entered the word of handmade crafts, I see just how special and how absolutely irreplaceable they are. The movie does its best to capture their essence, but to paraphrase Elvis Costello . . .
Compare the handmade gifts to the present that is an obvious peace symbol. The latter fits perfectly in the story and works to wrap everything up in the end--but because it comes after the better stuff, it fees like a cheap trick.
3. And well, for all that Stepmom gets right emotionally, the whole movie is a cheap trick in itself: a way for adults to make themselves feel better about having broken up their families. I noticed a similar rationalisation while drafting a review of an earlier 90s movie about divorce, which I decided to put on the shelf a bit after its star suddenly passed away. (Name that film, 90s Kids!) How can something be so terrible, these films ask us, when it can bring such beauty into the world? Yeah, I love looking for the beauty in cancer as well. Where are those movies?
2. We can also make a comparison between Stepmom and the HBO series Big Love, which is about a fundamentalist LDS family which practices plural marriage. For divorce enables a kind of polygamy, in which you get to have more than one spouse . . . just not all at the same time.
a poster of Stepmom
with the title Sister Wives
and the caption "Fixed it for you."
The creators of Big Love weren't polygamists, but as two men living as romantic partners, they still experienced a situation that made them want to ask what makes a good marriage and what makes a valid institution. And I frankly enjoyed watching their thought process over six seasons, though I didn't end up agreeing with them any more than I agree with Stepmom and that other pro-divorce 90s movie.
Now, media is often wonderful and always capable of making our worlds so much bigger that we could make them ourselves . . . but it should always be secondary to the first "school" of the family. When the family fails, media can, in theory, do the heavy lifting and make up for what was lost-- kind of like, you know, a stepparent. =P But it's hardly ideal. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that relying on media to do that is a symptom of another kind of cancer.
1. Let's end on a positive note. One more idea that Stepmom gets right is that a good sing-song makes everything better. A common love of music, voices raised in chorus, and bodies moving to one beat have an unexpected spiritual effect of making burdens lighter for being shared. And fortunate are the families which already knew that and didn't have to learn it from a film.
What is your family's favourite song?
Image Sources: a) Stepmom poster, b) Stepmom opening, c) Anna's quilt