The father-son relationship is one of the most frequently explored dynamics in cinema (an imdb keyword search for “father-son-relationship” turns up more than 12,000 titles). It’s been used as a basis for character conflict for so long that it’s become a groan-inducing cliché. That isn’t to say it’s not a theme that fails to resonate, but filmmakers have to work much harder to give it fresh life. Explored with far less frequency, it seems, is the mother-son relationship, the imdb keyword for which turns up a little over 7,000 titles, many of which overlap with father-son-relationship movies and are clearly technicalities. (For instance: Hook. Yes, there is mother in that movie who cares about her son, but Hook is the epitome of “Daddy Issues: The Movie!”)
Which brings us to two of the biggest movies of the summer: Boyhood and Guardians of the Galaxy. These two movies couldn’t be more different, operating in different tones, structures, genres, and pacing. Despite all that they do have one commonality: a very strong maternal presence (in different ways) that has a great influence on how the protagonists grow up and the kinds of men they become.
In the case of Boyhood, Mason’s mother Oliva (played by Patricia Arquette) is just about the only constant in a life defined by transience and change. Mason has a good relationship with his father, but there’s a distance between them that comes from infrequent visits and his father having a whole other family. They have fun when they get together, and Mason will turn to his father for advice, but that distance puts Mason’s dad into a role closer to “cool uncle” than actual father. It’s Mason’s mother who is there every time he goes home, who supports him and stands up for him against stepfathers and boyfriends with more traditional concepts of masculinity when he gets his ears pierced and allows girls to paint his nails. On the other side of this is Peter Quill’s mother Meredith (played by Laura Haddock), who dies in the first five minutes but whose memory Peter carries with him throughout his life both figuratively and literally, in the form of a mix tape she made for him.
Yet even when mothers are centrally important to the story they still have a way of getting pushed off to the side. As I said before Peter Quill’s mother in Guardians exists mostly represented by objects, and for someone so important to the film’s protagonist we know very little about her or their relationship. We know that the songs on “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” meant something to her and were important enough she wanted to share them with her son, but we never get an inkling of what they are. We know only slightly more about Meredith than we do about Drax’s deceased wife and child who are mentioned only in passing.
As for Boyhood, it’s the under-discussed tragedy of the film that Olivia keeps finding herself with men who take her for granted or mistreat her. Obviously teenagers are generally oblivious to and indelicate of their parents’ feelings, but there’s something in Mason’s casual disregard for her hardships and sacrifice that makes her journey deeply unsettling. All of this is driven home in a heartbreaking scene when Mason is leaving for college and refuses to take a framed copy of the very first photograph he took with him that Olivia keeps putting in a travel box. Arquette delivers a devastating monologue about how her life has passed her by, that despite being present and supportive through all of his 18 years she’s still basically invisible. To his credit Mason seems to understand this subtext, but still opts for a guarded response instead of an open thank you.
And while Mason leaves his living mother behind by film’s end, Peter Quill finds the strength to reach out to his deceased mother (again, both literally and figuratively) and winds up learning that, no matter the obstacle, they will always share an unbreakable bond. Peter even tears up a little as he pops in his mother’s final gift: “Awesome Mix Vol. 2” and listens to the symbolic “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” In this way it’s kind of funny that the raucous action-adventure sci-fi comedy that ends on a much more empathetic moment of reconciliation than the quiet coming-of-age drama.
These are both good movies, in my opinion, but the fact that they push their mother characters off to the side when a father-and-son relationship (or mother-and-daughter) would be much more involved in the main story is emblematic of the strange gender politics that hang over our culture. That somehow children with close relationships to parents of the opposite gender are weird. The fact that these two movies are so deeply entrenched in the mother-and-son relationship is a good start, but the rest of cinema needs to work on the follow-through.