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Commentary

3 films that capture the messiness of being a mom

In a year of movies with maternal themes, ‘Umma,’ ‘Turning Red,’ and ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ seek to mend the fractures of cultural and generational warfare between Asian and Asian American moms and daughters

From left: Stephanie Hsu, Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in "Everything Everywhere All at Once."Allyson Riggs/A24 via AP

I dislike Mother’s Day intensely, not out of any snobbery about made-up holidays or commercialism, but just because it makes me feel bad. On this day, social media is dominated by photos of tender smiling mothers with their daughters and declarations of love. There’s always the well-meaning friend who posts that thing about how they understand not everyone has a good relationship with their mother, but I notice no one shares specifics: Your codependent relationship with your mom, like spoiled milk, is not for general consumption.

Layer the deep guilt that comes from navigating a lifetime of clashing cultural values — in my case, Chinese vs. American — on top of an already complex relationship like mother and daughter, then add in the perils of raising my own teenage daughter, and you will excuse me if I spend my Mother’s Day hiding in a darkened room.

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From “The Lost Daughter” to the dark Finnish fairy tale “Hatching,” a reconsidering of motherhood is something of a zeitgeist in movies right now. I pounced on “Umma,” a recent horror film that promised a cultural twist on the perennial issue of mothers who love too much (“umma” means mother in Korean). Single mother Soo-Hyun/Amanda (played by Sandra Oh), having fled her abusive Korean mother after her family moved to America, now raises her own daughter, Chris (Fivel Stewart), on a remote farm without electricity in an effort to distance herself both physically and psychologically from the horrors of her traditional past. Mom and daughter are insularly close, until the ashes of Amanda’s mother show up, not coincidentally at the same time that her beloved Chris begins to chafe at the hyper-controlled life Amanda has curated for them.

Sandra Oh and Fivel Stewart star in "Umma."Saeed Adyani

Amanda fully embodies the plight of the sandwich generation mom, pressed hard between her rigid Umma (MeeWha Alana Lee) and rebellious Chris. As a mom in the same position — guilty that I’ve been a bad daughter, fearful that I might become my mother, frustrated by the choices my own teen makes — I sympathized completely with her descent into darkness. All the more disappointing, then, that Amanda gets such a raw deal at the end, forced to live a life dictated either by mom or daughter — and to accept that fate with a heart full of love.

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My 14-year-old daughter, never one for Disney movies even as a kid, consented to watch sweetly charming “Turning Red” with me because she was intrigued by the Chinese Canadian characters. (She also likes cute things.) Meilin “Mei” Lee (Rosalie Chiang), plucky overachiever who juggles academic success, friends, and duties at her family’s ancestral temple-turned-tourist-business, wakes up one morning to find herself changed into a giant red panda, invoking the transformations of puberty. (Mei’s mother, Ming, mistaking the problem, offers her daughter pads through the shower curtain.) Thus the panda metamorphosis goes hand in hand with hormonal rages and the bid for greater independence, which Ming (Sandra Oh, again) responds to by cracking down on panda-Mei with well-meant but ferociously overprotective maneuvers. For Mei, the eventual mother-daughter showdown yields a poignant understanding of her own mother’s insecurities and how they drive Ming’s tiger mom behavior.

In "Turning Red," teenager Mei Lee (voice of Rosalie Chiang) is torn between staying her mother's dutiful daughter and the chaos of adolescence. And Mei Lee's mother (Sandra Oh) has very strong feelings about it all. Pixar/Disney/Pixar

Despite the genuine depth of “Turning Red,” I came away from both movies feeling an itch of discontent. I’m no stranger to generational war. I can’t count the number of fight-to-the-death arguments I had with my mother over everything from my haircut to my marriage to a white guy. Possibly because she was an immigrant (from Taiwan, in the 1960s), she held herself and everyone in our family to impossibly high standards — grades, appearance, manners, work — as if to prove that we were not lesser. She disapproved vehemently of my choice to become a writer, wanting instead the security and prestige of a nobler profession — doctor, lawyer . . . the end. When I got engaged — to a penniless academic, no less — she went berserk. Terrible things were said; we didn’t speak for a long time. Eventually, after many years, she came to appreciate Steve, but the damage had been done. Ever afterward, I felt a certain distance and residual anger. Like Amanda, I raised my kids in self-conscious opposition to my own mother.

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When she died last year, however, I was buried under the stress of the pandemic, trying to balance a change in career with the well-being of two kids, an elderly father, and marriage itself. For the first time ever, I felt my faith in that ever-American concept of self-determination crumble. Sure, my mom was nuts, but her control-freak tendencies had always been backed by rock-solid devotion and a touching belief in standards. Now, in a world where the social contract had proved to be just as subjective as she had feared, I found myself missing her haughty certainty and steely resolve.

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Watching “Umma” and “Turning Red,” I had to ask: Does the old culture really have nothing to offer except repression and conformity? Must it always give way to the new, Americanized generation? Is there no other story we can tell ourselves — one in which the generational war counts no winners or losers?

Enter “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which blows up those binaries with as much joy and insanity as one movie can pack into two-plus hours. Evelyn Wang (the ever-masterful Michelle Yeoh) — beleaguered by taxes, harassed by her elderly father (James Hong), disappointed by both her sweet husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), and her once-promising but ne’er-do-well daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) — finds the source of her superpowers in the numerous branches of her life’s paths. For every failure she counts in her checkered life, another Evelyn has found success and powers that ur-Evelyn stumblingly learns to access.

From the preview, I expected to be rooting for Evelyn based on the number of roles she inhabits: chef, kung fu movie star, opera singer. But her ultimate heroism comes not from fame or wushu, but the hard-won wisdom and acceptance of her own and her daughter’s limitations. After listing all the ways in which Joy has disappointed her, she asks bluntly, “Of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you?”

But she continues: Maybe there is “something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this mess. And why no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you.”

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That’s about as beautiful and succinct an explanation of motherhood as I’ve ever heard. So often motherhood is painted as either pure blessing or hellhole, when the truth defies neat categorization and changes depending on whether you’re looking at it from the mother or the daughter end of the kaleidoscope.

“Everything” gives Evelyn — and moms everywhere — space to be neither angel nor devil, only humans doing their best. In doing so, it also offers their daughters the chance to let go of that vestigial adolescent rage. My own mother was so maddeningly, heartbreakingly complicated, but, since her death, I’ve stopped railing against her contradictions and started to accept, even cherish them in hindsight. Loving, cruel, heroic, self-destructively proud, she was deeply disappointed with life, even as she insisted that we all live it as hard as we possibly could. She was everything, everywhere, all at once.

Francie Lin is a writer in Florence, Mass.