Within the first few minutes of Netflix’s Otherhood, we find a triplet of empty-nesting, middle-aged moms sitting in a light-soaked breakfast nook before a Mother’s Day brunch filled with berries and donuts—and a centrally placed bottle of bourbon. It’s just the three of them without any of their three sons, who are childhood friends and have either forgotten the holiday or barely bothered to acknowledge it. Carol, a widow played by Angela Bassett, asks incredulously, “What son forgets Mother’s Day?” She’s just admitted to the group that she sent herself the elaborate, modernist bouquet of irises sitting on her kitchen counter (along with a card reading, “You are the best mother ever”). Gillian, played by Patricia Arquette, responds dryly with her own grievance: “Well, what kind of son sends a Mother’s Day text?” Helen, played by Felicity Huffman, pointedly pours the group more bourbon, because her son forgot, too.
They turn to each other and ask: Is it really so hard to buy some bath salts, a candle, a frame, return a phone call? Then Gillian describes “that sinking feeling that as your child’s growing up that you’re being broken up with on a gradual but daily basis.” It’s like that classic Sex and the City set piece of girlfriends fretting about men over brunch—only in this case, the girlfriends are moms, and the men are their sons. This scene is what introduces the titular concept of “otherhood,” in which moms grasp for meaning after their kids have left home, and sets the film in action: They storm out of their brunch, hop in a Volvo station wagon, and embark on a road trip to Manhattan to confront their neglectful sons. It also perfectly distills the unfortunate theme of the entire movie: women’s clueless, deranged, and debased longing for men. It’s He’s Just Not That Into You—for moms. Here, the romantic abjection that women face in their 20s and 30s is replayed in middle-age with adult offspring of the male variety. It’s a rom-com starring mothers and sons.
I mean, truly: their road trip is depicted in a musical montage featuring none other than “These Boots Are Made for Walkin,’” a song emblematic of a woman’s romantic revenge. Once in the city, they drop off Carol at her son Matt’s apartment building as Helen yells, “Don’t take no for an answer. Make him love you!”
Carol then buzzes at the front door and nervously stutters an excuse into the intercom about being in the neighborhood, like a prototypical “crazy ex-girlfriend” showing up on his doorstep. Once inside, after she demands a hug from her shirtless, hunky son, Matt cleans off his couch so that they can sit to chat and he inadvertently reveals a lacy fuchsia thong, presumably left behind by some recent fling, some other woman. (Frequently, I wondered whether the filmmakers were intending this double-meaning of “otherhood” or just stumbling into it.) They hold hands and she says, “I’ve been thinking about our relationship. I don’t think we have one.” Carol offers a piece of proof: He doesn’t even know her favorite flower. She insists on staying for a few days—during which Carol announces that she will thoroughly clean his entire apartment—and he wakes the next morning to homemade banana pancakes. She’s making him love her, alright.
Meanwhile, Gillian treks over to Long Island City to impose herself upon the life of her man-boy, Daniel, a hard-drinking, heart-broken writer living in a mouse-infested apartment. Things recently fell apart with his girlfriend, in part because of Gillian having voiced her disapproval, and his distain for his mother is expressed via neglect. “I texted you,” Daniel says in defense of his half-hearted Mother’s Day message. “I birthed you,” Gillian responds. She then coercively tries to set him up with another woman, as Daniel calls out his mother’s “insanity.” He nonetheless goes out on a date with said woman, who is rendered as a desperate, love-seeking kook herself. The consistent punchlines in this movie are women and their crazy overreaching vis-à-vis men. Soon, Daniel texts his mom, who, by the way, has left large containers of home-cooked food in his kitchen: “Stop calling me.”
This brings us to Helen, who is played by Felicity Huffman, who recently, after filming wrapped, pled guilty in the headline-making college admissions scandal. She was accused of paying $15,000 for someone to fraudulently improve her daughter’s SAT score. Of course, now her casting seems meta. The truth, though, is that this isn’t a film broadly about the kind of maternal helicoptering of which she is accused. The entire premise, all of the laugh-lines, would dissolve if daughters were involved. It is a strictly gendered, and weirdly Freudian, exploration of maternal overreach toward sons in particular. That is especially interesting in Helen’s case, because her son, Paul, is gay. But, by golly, she finds a way to express inappropriate ownership of his sexuality when she pressures him into coming out to her (even though she already knows that he’s gay), and then massively guilt trips him when she learns that he came out to his father, her ex-husband, many years earlier.
Her son then finds a way to romantically humiliate her by way of other (straight) men: announcing that Helen’s current marriage is a sham, and that she’s still hung up on her ex, who has moved on to another woman. (Later, there is yet more bizarre triangulation when Matt, Carol’s son, catches an accidental glimpse of Helen’s nipples through a sheer white t-shirt and says to Paul: “Nice titties, though.”) It gets only worse for Helen: Paul reveals that he long ago donated sperm to a lesbian couple who has since given birth to a baby girl, but that they don’t want anything to do with his biological family, Helen included. “Now someone else gets my grandchild, just like someone else has my husband,” she wails to her friends. It is through this great feat of narrative engineering, that she, too, is given a woman to compete with, and about whom to feel jealous. Cue: scene of Helen stalking one of the baby’s stroller-pushing mothers through a park until she forces herself into an opportunity to hold her genetic kin.
Meanwhile, Carol continues to debase herself by cleaning and cooking for Matt, who then fails to even show up for dinner at his own apartment. “I feel like I’m being stood up,” she says, shortly before Matt comes banging into the apartment, making out with a woman (another other woman) that he just met at a bar. Later, Carol furiously pages through a copy of the nudity-filled men’s magazine that her son art-directs; she is so scandalized you’d think it’s the 1950s and she just found her husband’s Playboy. After deciding to finagle her way into her son’s workplace party, to which he has explicitly said she is not invited, her friends decide it’s time for a MAKEOVER! She cuts her hair and buys a sexy dress and one of her friends tells her, I kid you not: “If you looked any younger, Matt would date you.” (In fairness, this is supposed to be funny in part because earlier Matt almost accidentally statutory-raped a 17-year-old... but I guess that only makes the whole thing worse, now, doesn’t it?) At the work event, Carol nervously dodges her son like one would a crush. When Matt finally spies his bang-able mom, he points to her breasts and exclaims: “You did not have those this morning!”
The maternal trio reunite later that evening with a resounding “fuck the boys,” feeling enraged over their sons’ collective neglect. Shots follow, along with a dancing montage filled with men who could be their sons. The next day, while desperately hung over, Carol returns to Matt’s apartment, looking somber, and he tells her (he really, actually says this): “Mom, why does it feel like we’re breaking up?” She then explains that, essentially, she wants to take a break: “You know who you are without me. I need to figure out who I am without you.” Then the whole fucking thing gets exponentially more depressing when Carol learns that her now-dead husband had cheated on her—that she’d idealized their marriage this whole time, only to find that she’d been made a fool all along. It turns out the other women’s husbands had cheated on them, too. So, truly, all three women have been used and abused not just by their sons but by their husbands, too. This begets a climactic scene in which Carol throws her husband’s beloved fishing trophies into her pool in a style directly reminiscent of Bassett herself in that iconic Waiting to Exhale moment.
It’s true that heterosexual mothers so often put unequal work into parenting, which can leave them with a greater sense of emptiness and purposelessness than their husbands once their children fly the nest. It’s also true that straight women frequently live through men, whether it’s their sons or their husbands, while being taken for granted and cast aside. And there is much to be said about the ways that gendered expectations push women into a host of painful variations on unrequited love—in dating, marriage, and motherhood. But Otherhood doesn’t explore any of this with any degree of social or political insight. Instead, it deploys all that inequity, emptiness, and rejection for cheap laughs; these middle-aged moms’ debasement is the gag. The question isn’t whether women face this kind of abjection in real life—yes they do, of course they do—but rather: Why would anyone think it’s funny? Why would anyone want to see that abjection filtered through a mother-son rom-com lens?
The film ends with Gillian’s son getting married to the girlfriend she formerly hated but has come to love. If this were a traditional Hollywood romance, Gillian would be the one getting married. But, here, we have a stand-in bride—and Gillian gets to hear something even better than “I do.” Daniel looks at her, intimately, and says: “Thanks, mom, for everything.”
Otherhood is currently streaming on Netflix.