Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Mom Zone revisited

In which our Diva spotlights a certain category of supporting character

A couple years ago, I hit a threshold in my acting career - the one where you start playing moms, and really never stop until you start playing grandmas. Since I don't have kids in real life -- and, due to the vagaries of genetics, was still frequently being asked where I went to school up until very shortly before that (and have been carded more than once since!) -- it felt weird. Really weird.

I've since gotten over that initial weirdness in the process of playing Busy Single Mom, Updated Fairy Tale Mom, Wholesome Civil-War-Era Mom, and Slightly Nervous Suburban Mom. Sure, it's great to be the lead once in a while, and women -- particularly mature women -- need to be more often, and in more varied ways. There should be more than this set of supporting roles out there for my type and age bracket. But that's a much larger discussion than I'm tackling today, and it doesn't change the fact that these roles, for all their limits, can be much more varied and meaty than we sometimes think.

Which is how I came to tweet last week, only semi-jokingly, that as long as I'm spending so much of my acting time in the Mom Zone, I want to be the Hollywood Midwest answer to Lena Headey.  Seriously, though, the last few years have seen this lady take on three, count 'em, three high-profile characters who function in their respective narratives primarily as mothers -- but you sure as heck can't say she's in a rut.

First, of course, she stepped into Linda Hamilton's iconic shoes as the ultimate "mama grizzly," Sarah Connor, on the TV spinoff Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. Sarah started out (as seen in the original 1984 movie) an ordinary working-class girl, not long out of high school, who waited tables and went out dancing with her not-long-out-of-high-school friends, until one night Kyle Reese dropped out of the sky... er, future and informed her that her yet-unconceived son would be the only hope for the survival of the human race. Caught between trying to give John a childhood and preparing him for the brutal realities he would face as an adult, she made everything up as she went along, trusted nobody, got really really psychologically damaged, ended up more dangerous than most of the machines, and never ever, not once, failed to be riveting to watch.

Then of course, there's Game of Thrones' Cersei Lannister, defined primarily as mother -- particularly after Joffrey takes the throne and promptly derails any plans Cersei might have had of doing any actual reigning as Queen Regent -- but also as wife, sister, illicit incestuous lover, and most of all as bitter, viciously resentful product of a pseudo-medieval fantasy society's strictly enforced gender norms. She hates the role that's been thrust upon her but plays it to perfection and to whatever advantage she can gain, coping with an apparently endless royal wine cellar and a nasty pastime of mocking her intended daughter-in-law for believing and sincerely doing her best to embody the ideals of highborn feminity they've both been raised on. She is, by and large, an awful person who does awful things, and the show would be much poorer without Headey's sly, snarky performance.

Currently on multiplex screens (for the moment, anyway; the box office hasn't exactly been all they hoped for) -- and setting off this whole thought process -- we have Jocelyn Fray in The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, who belongs to a subset of mom-dom that I'd quite like to take a crack at: the Unexpectedly Awesome YA Mom.

YA (for those who don't hang around the same people and blogs I do) stands for "young adult," and refers to a segment of the literary market primarily intended for teens. It's on my radar primarily as an arena where female authors are thriving and young female readers are finding a welcome breadth of young female characters driving their own stories. (Even more breadth would be great, of course, and it would also be nice if, say, publishers didn't go around slapping whitewashed cover images on the few books that do star PoC protagonists, but that's another topic getting important discussion elsewhere, and not my topic today.)

It's also on the public's radar, to the extent that it's a well Hollywood has been drawing from quite a bit the last few years, ever since Twilight caught them off-guard as a juggernaut franchise and finally brought to their attention the fact that teenage girls and young women have *gasp* actual, legal-tender money they quite like to spend on movie tickets. (The merits, or lack thereof, of said franchise are also beyond the scope of this particular post, and quite frankly I'd be happy to never see another comment about them as long as I live. Just so we're clear.)

Being girls, of course, the things they like can't possibly be actually worth anything (for a nice summary of that particular cultural meme and the problems with it, see this interview with YA author Sarah Rees Brennan), but their money? Ah, that can move mountains of calcified industry conventions. Or at least budge them a little.

But the thing I've been noticing as these movies based on YA (and middle-grades; let's not overlook the number of cars hooked to the Hogwarts Express here) books come out, even more than the fact that a lot of them have girl protagonists, is that said protagonists' moms are often some seriously awesome characters in their own right.

Now, mostly I'm familiar with the fantasy ones, because that's the genre I'll always gravitate to by default, regardless of the age bracket of its intended audience. So I don't know how much it holds for YA novels in other genres. But YA fantasy novels are often some variation on the "destined hero" narrative, with a protagonist who discovers some fantastic heritage kept hidden throughout her/his childhood. With that structure in place, Mom almost has to be involved in said heritage somehow, as a keeper of knowledge if nothing else. And she's often a lot else. (See also: Virginia Doyle, mother of Gemma, protagonist of A Great and Terrible Beauty and its two sequels, a property I would dearly love to see adapted to film even though nobody is going to let me play Virginia. Which I would love.)

Which brings us back to Jocelyn. Who was apparently even less prepared than Sarah Connor to raise a kid with A Destiny, since it's pretty clear that she had no opportunity to learn how to raise a kid at all. The secret society of Shadowhunters and their solemn duty to hunt demons with their special innate badass abilities seems great and all, until the younger (and more prominent) characters start telling you what it's like to actually grow up in that world. Which Jocelyn did, and there's a world of interesting in whether it was a good idea to keep that fact (and by extension a lot of other facts) from her daughter Clary, the central character. Like Sarah, she made up this whole parenting thing as she went along, and she got a lot of it right and a lot of it wrong, but at the end of the day she and Clary love each other ferociously even while they're arguing, and it's a beautiful thing to see. (Also, she's hell with a cast-iron skillet. That fight sequence is worth the price of admission all on its own.)

Mom's role is unquestionably a supporting one, but this week-plus later, I still find myself thinking a lot about it, even though the movie overall is kind of a hot mess, albeit one assembled from a lot of interesting bits.

I'm not sure what the point of all this musing is, except that I'd love to see more of this kind of story, and this kind of character, in the indie milieu. There's plenty of room for it, given that, for example, the YA properties picked up for big-budget adaptations are uniformly led by pretty white straight girls. It would be great to see Hollywood fix that, and I'm all for continuing to talk about how to get them to do so. While that inevitiably arduous process continues, though, I'm looking for the indie community to step up first and show them how it's done.

So how about it, indie filmmakers? When I look at the Chicago/Midwest casting breakdowns on Actors Access tomorrow, what kind of moms will I see? Stay tuned...