There may be no greater love than that of a mother, but little in Gayle Kirschenbaum’s new documentary Look at Us Now, Mother! will convince viewers that this actually stands as a truism.
From the moment the audience meets her sourpuss mommy dearest, Mildred, it’s nonstop verbal put-downs and ruthless jabs about daughter/director Gayle’s appearance and singlehood. What the faded photos and jumpy 16mm home movies don’t show, Gayle explains, is that her picture-perfect middle-class childhood withered under the harsh light of Mildred’s expectations. The director was the awkward artistic black sheep in the family, while her mother was a crown short of the Miss America title and never forgave herself for it.
Despite surviving decades of devastation to her self-esteem, Gayle doesn’t want all of her maternal memories to center on fights about nose jobs. Look at Us Now, Mother! retraces Gayle’s accomplishments and her mother’s lukewarm reception to them. Some of these career stories feel like tangents, but they add to the portrait of Mildred as the least proud parent on the block. At times the mother-daughter saga is stretched to meet more universal themes, but it’s easier to understand Mildred as a one-of-a-kind piece of work.
Gayle’s good-natured fight to reconcile with a person who sees nothing wrong with her own behavior proves both a fascinating character study and an intimate portrayal of a mother’s love turned hostile. Blood is (sometimes) thicker than water, and perhaps is still worth fighting for after all these years.
Look at Us Now, Mother!
Directed by Gayle Kirschenbaum
Opens April 8, Village East Cinema