First published by Women’s Agenda and Daily Review, 27 August 2015

Our belief in the mother-child bond is so elemental, so taken-for-granted, it’s hard to imagine a more monstrous female figure, culturally speaking, than the mother who walks away from her children. So how does Hollywood make a film about a mother who has not only abandoned her brood, but is a woman well into her 60s – a demographic that leads a Hollywood film about as often as Cory Bernardi leads the Sydney Mardi Gras.

Director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Married to the Mob) seems to have figured out the only possible way to make it work is to call in Meryl Streep – an actor of such greatness and inherent likability that she can pump warm blood into even the most unattractive character (see her titular editor in The Devil Wears Prada).

Here Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, a musician who in her youth might have been the next Chrissy Hynde or Bonnie Raitt, but is now fronting her band The Flash in a residency at a forgettable LA pub. She left her husband and children years ago, and as she introduces her band, including her guitarist boyfriend (Rick Springfield, playing Peter Pan as a rocker), it’s clear they have become her substitute family.

Ricki can’t parent in part because she’s an eternal child – she still dresses like it’s Saturday night in 1986, and she’s always broke – but also because she’s still chasing the success she tasted briefly years ago. She’s got that streak of bloody single-mindedness you see in some of the older contestants on The Voice. She’s the mother who wasn’t satisfied with Woolf’s room of one’s own: she wanted a life of her own.

In narrative terms, the early loss of a mother has dramatic consequences for children – it’s the spark that sets off classic plots. For daughters in particular the loss of a mother is followed by privations and romantic hurdles (Cinderella and Snow White) fear of commitment to the right man (Anne Elliot in Persuasion), or dangerous attractions to dark men (Cathy in Wuthering Heights).

Here, the plot gets moving when Ricki is on a break from her checkout shift at a grocery store, eyes still bloodshot from the gig the night before, and her ex-husband calls to say her daughter (played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer) is in trouble: her husband left her for another woman and she can barely get out of bed.

Ricki flies to her ex’s stately compound – it’s in a gated community, with security to keep the evil outside at bay, but inside the family is struggling with their internal demons. Ricki’s daughter Julie all is unwashed hair and pure rage, and her family want to blame her. “You’re the reason she’s crazy,” someone spits.

Pete, her businessman ex, is beautifully played by Kevin Kline, and it’s a pairing that’s believable, in an opposites attract kind of way. Last time we saw them together was Sophie’s Choice, where Streep played a mother whose miserable fate was to choose between her two children. Here, her choice is between her children and following her dream.

“I couldn’t have two dreams!” she protests to Pete. “I thought we were your dream!” he replies, as sad and wounded as the day she left. He still loves her – it’s all over his face – in the inexplicable way we can continue to love those who cause us no end of pain.

At the family home Streep is like an alien who’s just landed on another planet – alone she slides her fingers over the gleaming surfaces, she can’t quite believe the plentiful fridge, the opulent bathroom. You can feel her being simultaneously repulsed and attracted by the retentive order and bounty of it all.

Pete’s second, younger wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) returns full of benevolent superiority: “That dressing gown looks great on you. You should keep it.” While Ricki is all id, leaking guilt at not being the perfect breakfast cereal ad mother, Maureen is all superego, full of just repressed rage at all the thankless years she’s spent filling Ricki’s shoes. They’re the embodiment of the dilemma that women aren’t supposed to have it all: they must choose family or career, they can do one or the other well, but not both.

The monster question hangs over the movie, and it’s a relief when Ricki tackles the double standards head on towards the middle of the film, in her version of the misogyny speech. Men like Mick Jagger can leave families and go out and have sex with whomever they please and still have respect and love because “you’re the man,” she lashes her stunned audience between songs. “But if you’re a woman, god forbid, you’re the monster.”

The script (by Diablo Cody of Juno fame) attempts to complicate the story by making Streep’s character a troop-loving republican, one son gay and the other a bleeding heart liberal. It feels like a clunkily imposed detail, but then you realise it stops the film descending into simple opposites of good and bad, progressive and conservative. And her sons’ hurt and anger highlight how deep our expectations of the “good” mother are, no matter what our politics.

For a while the movie seems to get stuck in a loop of airport, taxi and pub scenes that eventually start to blur – ok, we get that the stage is where Ricki comes alive, her real home (Streep sings and plays guitar here very well – and all the numbers are perfectly fine if you’re a Springsteen and Petty fan, less so if you’re not). The evolution in Ricki’s character, when it comes, occurs in sudden bursts, and at times seems depressingly equated with learning to behave like a good woman. After she returns from part-rapprochement with her family we see her back at the supermarket, where her young black male manager nods approvingly at her sudden willingness to smile and be nice to customers. To do that emotional labour that’s expected of women.

After meandering for a while, the end seems to come in a rush (warning: spoilers ahead – though no plot twists come as any great surprise). The story that starts with one child’s divorce ends with Ricki attending another child’s wedding. Penniless, her gift to her son is her music. A moment that guests fear will end in a train crash ends with catharsis, as the monster is well and truly slayed and Ricki and her band of band of misfit minstrels take to the stage to mend everyone’s hearts. As Ricki sings Springsteen you can glimpse the mother who once must have surely sung lullabies to her children, sending them to sleep feeling soothed and safe.

Ricki has learnt how to love a little, and her family have learnt how to let go and live a little. The mother wounds and the mother heals. She’s the problem and the solution. The wholeness of the person, the film seems to say, depends on wholeness of the family. It’s a heavy load for mothers to bear.

Ending with a wedding suggests hope that the next generation might do things differently. And as the groom and bride take to the floor to dance to Ricki’s impromptu song, the bridesmaids and groomsmen join them in what looks like a more free-form version of the wedding dance moves they planned earlier. But the women are still on one side, men on the other; they look like they’re mostly working over an old script, but they’re moving forward, ever-so-slightly.

Read the story on Women’s Agenda or Daily Review.

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