2019 / USA, UK / 100 min. / Dir. by Cindy Chupack / Premiered online on Aug. 2, 2019by:
Long-time television writer Cindy Chupack’s directorial debut, Otherhood, was supposed to be released around Mother’s Day but was pushed to August because of actress Felicity Huffman’s legal proceedings. In March, Huffman and nearly 50 others were arrested for their involvement in a nationwide college entrance exam cheating scandal. Huffman and fellow members of America’s rich and famous were charged with felony conspiracy to commit mail fraud and honest services mail fraud, with Huffman specifically paying $15,000 for a proctor to correct any wrong answers on her daughter's SAT. The intention is clear — what parent wouldn’t want their child to get accepted into their dream school? — but the ethical ugliness is even more obvious. It’s exactly the kind of well-meaning but completely inappropriate thing Helen Halston, Huffman’s character in Otherhood, would do for her son.
Despite plainly being a Mother’s Day film, the early August release date still works with the film’s theme (to some extent). Moms undoubtedly get their feelings hurt when their kids don’t call on Mother’s Day, but the same disappointment can surface when children head off to college and communication tapers off. It’s a topic that pervades the film: Grown-up children disappoint their parents without meaning to. Helen, Gillian (Patricia Arquette), and Carol (Angela Basset) have been empty-nesters for so long, they’ve grown tired of the way their adult sons treat them — ignored phone calls, unanswered text messages, forgotten holidays. They’re fed up. After another Mother’s Day goes by with little-to-no contact from the three boys, the moms — drunk on whiskey before noon on a Sunday — devise a scheme to forcibly involve themselves in their sons' lives again. On a whim, they pack their bags and head from upstate New York into the city, showing up unannounced at their sons’ apartments. (Less than 10 minutes in, it’s clear why their children don’t give these domineering women the attention they think they deserve.)
One by one, Helen, Gillian, and Carol are dropped off outside their destinations. Only Carol dares to directly confront her son Matt (Sinqua Walls) — Helen and Gillian both get cold feet and put off their surprise reunions until the next day. From here, the plot splits into three overlapping threads. For example: Gillian’s son Daniel (Jake Hoffman, son of Dustin Hoffman, playing a dollar-store version of Ben Braddock from The Graduate ) walked in on his hairstylist girlfriend Erin (Heidi Gardener) having an affair, so she’s determined to get them back together so her boy can be happy again. When Carol’s son Matt tells her she needs to focus on herself after the death of her husband, Gillian leaps at the opportunity to suggest a makeover at Erin’s salon. Gillian and Erin’s conversation then inspires Helen to resolve unspoken issues with her son Paul (Jake Lacy), who has always felt neglected by her. Their respective journeys intertwine like this for a solid hour before the trio realize the only way they can improve their relationships with their sons is to improve their relationships with themselves.
This sort of three-pronged plot should be expected from someone who has spent most of her career writing for television. Chupack has penned episodes of modern sitcoms like Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005), Sex and the City (1998-2004), and Modern Family (2009- ), so it makes sense for her first screenplay to preserve the episodic structure to which she’s accustomed. Unfortunately, the resulting film doesn’t flow smoothly; Otherhood plays like several episodes of a Netflix Original Series loosely strung together. Major plot points are either abandoned or resolve themselves off-screen, all so that Chupack can add more twists and turns to a story that’s barely there in the first place. Another component that feels imported from the commercial-heavy network sitcom model is the film’s overt product placement. The moms fawn over a box of Dunkin’ Donuts at their Mother’s Day brunch. Once in New York, Gillian raves about her hotel’s one-of-a-kind amenities with the brand name conveniently centered in the frame. These embedded ads are as distracting as a commercial break, made worse by the legitimately talented, veteran performers doing the hawking.
It’s a shame that these characters aren’t as good as the actresses playing them. Patricia Arquette won an Academy Award for bringing nuance and grace to the role of a mother in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014). Angela Bassett has played important figures such as Dr. Betty Shabazz in Malcom X (1992), Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do with It (1993), and the titular heroine in The Rosa Parks Story (2002). In direct contrast to their undeniable talent, Otherhood limits its three leads to caricatures — the extent of Arquette’s character is Overbearing Mom, Bassett’s is Grieving Mom, and Huffman’s is Entitled Mom. The script leaves no room for further development, instead choosing tired jokes over meaningful moments. Their lines sound like Chupack and her co-writer Mark Andrus were trying to replicate what they imagine a group of fifty-something moms would sound like, with the trio griping about social media and cell phones and “the world today.” One line near the beginning of their trek into the city remains particularly confounding: When Bassett sees a new bridge being built, she says, “What was wrong with the old bridge?” The likely answer is “It was structurally unsound,” but for some reason this perplexing query is regarded as wise and profound. It’s baffling dialogue like this that makes the viewer wonder what drew these actresses to the project in the first place.
As the film ends, the credits list Arquette, Bassett, and Huffman as executive producers while an outtake of the three of them laughing and dancing plays to the side. Even Cindy Chupack can be seen in the corner of the frame, beaming along with the rest of the cast and crew. It’s enough to evoke dissociation. How could these stars not realize how bland this film is? It looks like they’re having a blast. Then it hits: These talents must realize how hard it is for women in Hollywood to get roles past a certain age. Despite her Oscar, Arquette hasn’t landed a significant role in a serious film since 2014. Hoffman’s career post-sentencing has a big question mark looming above it. Bassett is the only one who continues to score consistent work in genre franchises like Marvel Cinematic Universe and American Horror Story (2011- ), but even she seems to struggle to find work that challenges her dramatic acting abilities. It’s possible that these actresses saw Otherhood as a solution to their problems, in some small way — or a corrective to similar issues plaguing the entertainment industry at large — but if that’s the case, they were woefully off the mark.
Otherhood is now available to stream from Netflix.