Early in “The (Dead Mothers) Club,” Rosie O’Donnell says the loss of her mother at age 10 was “the defining moment” of her life. Like the others in this HBO documentary about women who lost their mothers at an early age, including Jane Fonda and Molly Shannon, O’Donnell describes the grief as a long-term project, one that takes decades and dedication, one that becomes a permanent part of your identity.
“It’s like a club,” says O’Donnell, who is one of the film’s executive producers. “You’re initiated, you get a tattoo, it is not going away.” O’Donnell describes her fast bond with Madonna, who lost her mother at 5, when they first met during the making of “A League of Their Own”: “We hugged and there was this instant connection, almost like siblings, right away.”
Directed by Carlye Rubin and Katie Green, “The (Dead Mothers) Club” doesn’t reveal a convenient formula for how to deal with early loss. That’s one of its strengths, as it makes it clear that every death and every reaction to it is unique. Some of the women in the movie describe not even truly feeling their mother’s death until they were older and more psychologically able to take it on. Their childhood survival instincts got them through the initial period, until they were strong enough to face the enormity. And even then, from a position of maturity, grieving takes work. As Fonda, who lost her mother to suicide at 12, points out, “It takes intention. You have to want to heal.”
One of the fascinating refrains in the movie is how all these women — the three actresses, and three unfamous women selected by the filmmakers — learn that they are not their mothers. Differentiating themselves is more complicated than it is for most people, since they’re comparing themselves to a ghost-like memory. Jordyn, a 17-year-old profiled by the filmmakers, feels compelled to go to UCLA because her mother, who died five years ago, went there. Ultimately, Jordyn chooses the University of Michigan, giving herself permission to stop answering to the imagined maternal voice in her head. It’s a moment of triumph and self-definition for her. O’Donnell describes an extra layer of shock after having a heart attack a few years ago, because she’d always assumed she’d get cancer like her mother.
The film, which premieres Monday at 9, is strongest in the interviews with Shannon, Fonda, and O’Donnell. These women articulate their emotional processes with the kind of concision and self-awareness that comes after years in the public eye. O’Donnell cuts to the chase about the social ramifications of a parent’s death: “There was a real stigma to being the kids with the dead mother,” she says. Fonda recalls the silence that surrounded her mother’s suicide: “I never talked to my father about the fact that my mother killed herself. I found out from a movie magazine. Nobody ever talked about it.” And Shannon, whose mother, sister, and cousin were killed in a car crash that she survived when she was 4, is unintentionally heartbreaking as she remembers how the “relaxed femininity” of her piano teacher would put her in a trance.
But the stories of the other three women tend to veer slightly off point and take up too much screen time. Leticia, 29, is about to have her first child, and the movie tracks her fear of having the hereditary gene mutation that led to the breast-cancer deaths of her mother and grandmother. She is a member of the club, and her tale is engaging, to some extent, as it builds to a bittersweet peak. But it nonetheless feels as if it belongs in a different film.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.