10 great films about troubled mother-daughter relationships

From Marnie to Carrie, the love between a mum and her daughter has been taken to dark and dangerous places on screen.

Amy Simmons
Updated:

Pin Cushion (2017)

Pin Cushion (2017)

Mums and daughters have tricky relationships on screen, with a whole strand of films focusing on dysfunctional mothers who express love in unconventional, even harmful ways. Dismantling the dated portrayal of mothers as apron-wearing, altruistic goddesses, these films probe difficult questions regarding maternal power and desire, while offering up alternative perspectives on the mother-daughter bond.

Deborah Haywood’s colourfully stylised and raw-to-the-core debut feature, Pin Cushion tells the story of a unique mother-daughter duo, while examining the pitfalls of adolescence and the psychological trauma wrought by bullying. The film focuses on naive teen Iona (Lily Newmark) and her painfully introverted mother, Lyn (Joanna Scanlan), who move to a new town to start afresh, but soon receive a hostile welcome that places an emotional strain on their codependent relationship.

It’s a relationship that’s revealed to be as comforting as it is suffocating: both women share a bedroom, fawn over each other and innocently kiss on the mouth. Yet everything changes when Iona gets involved with the school’s resident group of ‘mean girls’. She distances herself from her mother, becoming despondent and cold. As a result, they each retreat into fantasy and lies, resulting in a climax of dark and unexpected twists.

With Pin Cushion settling into cinemas, here are 10 outstanding films that deal with the complex undercurrents between mothers and daughters. After all, the maternal-filial bond comes in many colours.

Now, Voyager (1942)

Director Irving Rapper

Now, Voyager (1942)

In one of her greatest performances, Bette Davis plays repressed loner Charlotte Vale, a walking disaster of neurosis, and slave to the overbearing whims of her tyrannical mother (Gladys Cooper), a resentful Boston matriarch who revels in pouring scorn upon her daughter.

With the help of renowned psychiatrist – and benevolent father figure – Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains), Charlotte manages to escape her mother’s abusive grasp and reinvent herself, before falling for troubled married architect Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) on a cruise to South America. But instead of pairing up with the love of her life, circumstances result in her becoming the surrogate mother of her lover’s tormented daughter, Tina (Janice Wilson), who is as neglected and unwanted by her mother as Charlotte had been. Infusing bittersweet romance with tragic empowerment, Now, Voyager is the pinnacle of the ‘woman’s picture’.

Imitation of Life (1959)

Director Douglas Sirk

Imitation of Life (1959)

Now recognised as one of the defining Hollywood melodramas, Douglas Sirk’s last Hollywood film focuses on a duo of complicated mother-daughter relationships, while highlighting gender and race issues at a time when these pressing matters were rarely discussed on screen at all, much less with such eloquence.

While its main story involves the fortunes and loves of aspiring actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), subplots involve Lora’s daughter, Susie (Sandra Dee), whose chief gripe with her mother is the neglect she endures as Lora becomes more in demand, and the racially charged travails of Lora’s African-American housekeeper, Annie (Juanita Moore). In turn, Annie has a fraught relationship with her light-skinned daughter, Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), whose desperate attempts to distance herself from her race, and her mother, result in devastating repercussions for all involved.

Remarkably fearless, seductive and emotionally bruising, Imitation of Life is a lavishly laid-out masterwork, and a deft social critique that has influenced generations of later filmmakers.

Marnie (1964)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Marnie (1964)

The mother figure is a domineering presence in many of Hitchcock’s films, not only for sons – as in North by Northwest (1959), Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Frenzy (1972) – but also for daughters. Rich with dark fetishes and perplexing insights, all wrapped up in an exquisitely oedipal package, Marnie is one of the most divisive films in Hitchcock’s canon, and something of an underrated masterpiece.

Revolving around themes of kleptomania, identity, spousal rape, psychological abuse and unresolved mother-daughter issues, the film stars Tippi Hedren as Marnie Edgar, a woman traumatised as a child by an incident involving her pitiless mother. As a result of this half-repressed memory, Marnie has become a compulsive liar and thief, and is terrified of sexual contact with men. Hitchcock’s film is both a cruel romance and a pop-psychology study of sociopathy, with Hedren bringing an unforgettable sense of masochistic revolt to the role. 

Female Trouble (1974)

Director John Waters

Female Trouble (1974)

Gleefully skewing middle-class morality, while paying homage to juvenile delinquent films, lesbian jailhouse movies and the sacrificing mothers of ‘women’s pictures’, John Waters’ savagely funny and anarchic epic chronicles the rise and fall of quintessential white trash rebel Dawn Davenport (drag icon Divine), who reluctantly gives birth to her obnoxious daughter, Taffy (Mink Stole), after hooking up with greasy derelict Earl Peterson (also played by Divine).

To describe their relationship as dysfunctional would be dignifying it. Dawn buys Taffy one dress in 12 years, and won’t allow her to attend school since she can’t be bothered to help with homework or be nagged for lunch money. “I’ve done everything a mother can do,” Dawn tells her friends, in the exasperated tones of a long-suffering matriarch, after tying Taffy to a bed in the attic. “Nothing changes her. It’s hard being a loving mother!” 

Carrie (1976)

Director Brian De Palma

Carrie (1976)

A heady fusion of assured satire and slick emotional exploitation, Brian De Palma’s teen horror classic concerns a bullied telekinetic outcast who wreaks havoc on her classmates. Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, it tackles an impressive range of subjects, including teenage angst, parent cruelty and the politics of the high school experience.

As humiliating as the insults from Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) fellow students are, they pale in comparison to what Carrie has to come home to and face every day from her overbearing, scripture-spouting zealot of a mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), who has no patience for sin. Imposing, manipulative and unloving, she punishes her daughter repeatedly – due to her psychotic fear of sexuality – and prohibits her from developing friendships with other teens. As a result of ignorance, religious guilt and her mother’s stifling control, Carrie remains shunned by society, and doomed from the start. 

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Director Ingmar Bergman

Autumn Sonata (1978)

Raw, penetrating and emotionally wrenching, Ingmar Bergman’s riveting chamber piece explores the pent-up angst between a mother, Charlotte (Ingrid Bergman), a self-centered concert pianist who refuses to come to terms with her past neglect of her children, and her middle-aged daughter, Eva (Liv Ullmann). Taking place at Eva’s country home over the course of a single day, a Strindberg-like drama unfolds, with the two women slowly unburdening themselves of years of unspoken frustrations with each other.

Featuring intuitively observed performances of extraordinary candour from Bergman and Ullmann, and fuelled with intensely powerful dialogue, the film keeps us fully involved throughout, our sympathies oscillating tentatively from one woman to the other, where every moment of kindness and redemption is immediately undermined by a look or a casual, thrown-off comment. We do not always like the family we’re destined to love, and Autumn Sonata embodies that truth with impeccable clarity.

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Director Frank Perry

Mommie Dearest (1981)

Based on the scandalous 1978 autobiography of Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina, Frank Perry’s big, brassy and outrageously coiffured cult biopic tells the story of the legendary actor’s relationship, or lack thereof, with her children. Starring Faye Dunaway as Crawford and Mara Hobel and Diana Scarwid as the younger and older versions of Christina respectively, Mommie Dearest alleges that the celluloid diva was a shamelessly publicity-hungry, overbearing and physically abusive mother, intent on projecting the image of the perfect family, even if that means destroying it.

The film has developed a reputation as a camp giggle-fest, despite the film being made with serious intentions. Yet, playing this self-absorbed narcissist, alcoholic and obsessive-compulsive control freak at full tilt, Dunaway’s startling fierce and committed performance has to be seen to be believed. You’ll never look at a wire coat-hanger in the same light again. 

Wild at Heart (1990)

Director David Lynch

Wild at Heart (1990)

Unfolding in a vividly realised 1950s-flavoured, gothic landscape, which runs through the recesses of the director’s notoriously outlandish subconscious, this erotic, tender and blackly comic road movie occupies a unique spot even in David Lynch’s wild-at-heart-and-weird-on-top career.

The film focuses on a pair of young southern lovers, Sailor Ripley (Nicholas Cage) and Lula Fortune (Laura Dern). They’re on the run from Lula’s malevolent mother, Marietta (Dern’s real-life mother, Diane Ladd), an embittered lush who will stop at nothing to break them apart. Besides, she has the hots for Sailor herself. After serving time for murdering a would-be assassin hired by Marietta, Sailor is released from jail, and he and Lula drive to New Orleans, tailed by Marietta’s private-detective boyfriend Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton) and a droll coterie of mobsters. It’s a masterfully created fable: intoxicatingly romantic and deadly, darkly serious.

The Piano Teacher (2001)

Director Michael Haneke

The Piano Teacher (2001)

A self-assured and unapologetically transgressive study of sadomasochism and emotional and physical cruelty, Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher confronts traditional notions of female sexuality while revealing a murky labyrinth of mother-daughter bonds. The film centres on Erika Kohut (Huppert), a ticking time bomb of deeply repressed emotion, who coolly instructs her students in the art of Schubert when she’s not visiting hardcore peep booths or self-harming with a razor.

Her life at the Viennese conservatory is in sharp contrast to her life at home, where she’s cooped up with her hysterically possessive and neurotic mother (Annie Girardot). It’s a codependent, suffocating, incestuous relationship and Erika squirms under her mother’s thumb, wavering between simpering little girl and an adult striving for authority. The two women take turns in tormenting each other, only to collapse in the same bed like exhausted lovers. 

Precious (2009)

Director Lee Daniels

Precious (2009)

Adapting Sapphire’s searing novel Push for the screen, Lee Daniels’ unrelenting study in dysfunction centres on awkward, morbidly obese, African-American teenager Claireece ‘Precious’ Jones (Gabby Sidibe), who lives a tormented existence in a Harlem apartment with her physically, emotionally and – hints suggest – sexually abusive welfare cheat of a mother, Mary (an astonishingly raw, Mo’Nique).

Painfully isolated, functionally illiterate and pregnant for the second time by her father (her first child has Down’s Syndrome), Mary has no sympathy for the incestuous abuse Precious has suffered, but rather blames her daughter for “stealing her man”. The film’s merciless depiction of urban despair is leavened with doses of magical realism, where Precious escapes into various fantasy worlds, but these respites are few and far between: her mother frequently drags her back to the tragic reality of her situation. It’s a bleak yet ultimately triumphant film, buoyed by extraordinary performances.

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