There is something about films that take place in a small, northern town that immediately invoke feelings of warmth. One of the first movies to come to mind when I think of this homey, close-knit setting is Mermaids (1990), a film in which the concept of location plays an important role. Whenever single-mother Mrs. Flax (Cher) decides a city or a man in that city has let her down she simply gets in her car with her two daughters, Charlotte (Winona Ryder) and Katie (Christina Ricci), and moves somewhere new. This unusual style of living leads the three women to move to Massachusetts where the family starts over in a small town.
In terms of context, fifteen-year-old Charlotte scorns her mother and her lifestyle, one of casual sex and instability though Mrs. Flax defends herself, believing “Death is dwelling on the past or staying in one place too long.” While Mrs. Flax begins seeing a man, Charlotte uses Catholicism to suppress her emerging sexuality and the dissonance between the two women manifests itself through their religion, or lack thereof, and their desire for men. The way Mermaids utilizes a literal location to emphasize the feeling of “home” and connects it to this mother-daughter relationship is what mesmerizes me most. Charlotte does not simply resent her mother for constantly moving houses, or engaging in premarital sex, but because her mother does not act as a source of shelter or home for Charlotte. At one point, when Charlotte believes she might be pregnant, despite not having sex yet, she struggles to confide in Mrs. Flax who reads “Peyton Place” in the bathtub, a novel about three women struggling to confront their identity and sexuality in a small town. Charlotte strives to be everything her mother is not at the expense of her own interests or urges without realizing that it can be harmful to forge an identity on the basis of rebellion. It is when Charlotte mockingly dresses in her mother’s clothes that she finally has sex when in reality she is beautiful and desired the way she is.
When I ruminate on the idea of comfort I immediately think of my mother. I think of being in her arms; my mother is consistent in her showing of affection because her mother wasn’t very good at it. I think about confiding in her and going to her for advice, something Charlotte is unable to do with her mom. Like Charlotte, I have moved multiple times, and not too long ago, my mother mentioned wanting to look for another house. Her saying that caught me off guard and I realized that this was the first time in my life that my current house felt like a home: a living, breathing aspect of my identity. I spent my high school years living in this house, it became the “hub” of my friend group, boyfriends have come and gone, prom pictures were taken here. I recently moved out to go to college and before I left my mom told me this home would always be here for me when I need it, to comfort me. This is why rewatching Mermaids at this time in my life felt so special as it confronted not only the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship and how cherished it can be but the feeling of stability and identity granted by a physical location.
When Charlotte and Mrs. Flax finally engage in a verbal fight, I am reminded of the way my mother and I fight, weaponizing our own insecurities and catapulting resentments at one another. It is not until the two women are honest and communicate without judgment that they are finally able to understand each other and truly settle down in the town. This is ultimately what makes the ending of the film so rewarding as the mother and her daughters dance happily in the kitchen, letting themselves grow roots in this home and with each other. What I find most consoling about the film is the way it earnestly examines the female relationship in the household and what it means to be a woman who is comfortable in her identity and sexuality. Mermaids is about truly finding a home, not just in your location, but in your family.
-Ariana Martinez (A.M.)
I do not own these pictures.