Look At Us Now, Mother

Last year 100 released films made over $20M. The next 100 made over $1.3 million. The next, made over $380K. When you get to the half-way point, you’re down to $150K. In other words, half the movies released make around $150K or less. And in my own hipster-ish, you-probably-haven’t-heard-of-it way, one of the things I like to do is keep track of the lowest box-office films I’ve seen in a year. When I find films in the bottom of the list that I could’ve seen but didn’t, I think, “Well, that’s probably for the best. I didn’t see Hayride 1 so how will I catch up on the plot of Hayride 2?” Other times, I regret the omission, as with last year’s Zombeavers, which is easily the best Beaver Zombie film out of Santa Clarita in 2015—no, of the decade.

Last year, the lowest BO movie we saw was Buzzard, not counting all the movies (and there were many) that simply don’t even rate an entry, because they had no “official” release, whatever that means. Like Scream At The Devil, or the Israeli Film Festival films, etc., where the auditoriums were perhaps rented by the producers.

I mention this because this film, Look At Us Now, Mother, is one of those I’d think likely to be in the running for “lowest box office”, except that I don’t think it actually has had an “official” release.

Sums up the movie.
“Mom” critiques her daughter’s distribution strategy here.

This is a documentary about a middle-aged Jewish woman who has had a long, combative life—well, okay, only with regard to her mother. She (documentarian Gayle Kirschenbaum) actually seems like a nice person, and her mother seems like a challenging person to live with. In fact, the trailers for this make momma seem like a bit of a monster, to a comical degree. And, as we see, Momma Kirschenbaum has definite strong opinions which she is eager to express in the least considerate words possible.

But, of course, there are only two basic ways a story like this can go: You can laugh along with the horror, or you can make it a cri de couer, agonizing over how hard a life you’ve had, and emphasize your own awesome fortitude and success in the face of adversity. The latter is fairly insufferable to watch. The former may make you uncomfortable, too, really.

Look At Us Now, Mother threads the needle between these two paths. At first, you think it’s going to be this sort of woe-is-me Baby Boomer tale of suffering, but midway through (at the latest) Kirschenbaum realizes that that’s a dead end. (And by saying “she realizes”, I don’t mean to suggest that this was some sort of spontaneous on-screen revelation, rather than careful editing, or perhaps crafting by co-writer Melissa Jo Peltier, who has a credit on the film and seems to run in the same “reality TV” circles as Gayle.)

Some women are like that.
One suspects Mildred saw a threat in Gayle.

So the last half of the movie, probably the bulk of it, is devoted to trying to handle the source of the problem at least well enough for Gayle and her mother to bond before Momma—Mildred, if you can believe that—goes to the Great Synagogue in the Sky. There’s some awfully laughable on-screen therapy, with no fewer than three different therapists trying to bully (in that noncommittal therapy way) Momma into admitting She Done Wrong, although there is one therapist who talks about The Nose Thing by referring to 20th century Jews-in-America history, which I thought was interesting.

The Nose Thing is that Gayle is Jewish, you see. And looks it. A fine-looking woman, but with the nose and the masses of kinky hair, you’d not mistake her for Icelandic. Which, you know, you’d think would be an advantage in a community that might not want their sons marrying shiksas. But her mother (who has the exact same nose) is constantly telling her she needs a nose job, and it was Kirschenbaum’s earlier documentary about her nose that led to this documentary.

I don't know the Hebrew.
It’s a great schnozz, if I may use the Yiddish.

And this, in turn (again assuming that we can trust the progression of the movie), leads to her learning about her parents lives. A baby dead of flu. A suicidal father. Long, hard—truly long and truly hard—days. In short, an appreciation of however rough “we” had it growing up, it was a piece of cake compared to our parents and grandparents. If there’s a therapeutic aspect of this movie, it’s that Gayle’s appreciation for her mother’s history gives Momma enough room to admit mistakes-were-made, and for both to move past it.

On the three point scale:

  1. Subject matter: LAUNM threads the needle here, as mentioned. If it had just been a litany of complaints, it would be the most trivial thing imaginable. As a thoughtful reflection on how getting beyond one’s self allows us to appreciate others, it’s top-quality documentary fodder.
  2. Style: Primitive, to say the least. It didn’t bother me or The Boy, but this is intimate stuff filmed on phones and handhelds throughout. I wasn’t expecting anything else, though.
  3. Slant: Well, you don’t really know. But Kirschenbaum doesn’t seem to have Munchausen-by-proxy, and she genuinely seems to minimize the “I was right!” aspect of things. By the end, you grow to have an affection for her mother, too, no matter how appalled you are by some of things she has said over the years.

It’s worth a watch. The Boy was also supportive. The filmmaker was there, but we didn’t stay to chat. Sorry, Gayle!

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