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Uma Gets Personal with the Joys of ‘Motherhood’

“I think it’s interesting that people assume that motherhood isn’t worth a complex portrait in film,” says Katherine Dieckmann. The indie director—whose previous credits include directing Paul Rudd in “Diggers” and R.E.M. in the “Shiny Happy People” video—attempts to remedy this fact with her new film, “Motherhood.” The film marks a departure for Uma Thurman, who plays the protagonist, Eliza, a harried Manhattan mother who struggles to throw her daughter’s birthday party and compete in an essay contest during the same difficult day. In a recent roundtable interview, both Dieckmann and Thurman shared their thoughts on the importance of honestly depicting everyday family life, the challenges of parenting in an urban environment, and the seemingly female-centric film’s broader appeal.

Given the vast array of previous family-focused films, Dieckmann strove to create a realistic yet complex portrait of motherhood. “I felt, as a filmmaker, very frustrated with the lack of multidimensional mothers on film,” Dieckmann says. She didn’t want to create a suburban family comedy (“We’ve seen that movie,” she explains), nor did she aim to produce yet another film about a mother’s psychological crisis. “I didn’t want [to portray] the mother who’s dealing with a drug problem, or a suicidal child,” she says. “I wanted an everyday mother.”

And an urban one, too; the film takes place in the heart of New York City’s bustling Greenwich Village. Despite the fact that most young families reside in suburban or rural areas, Dieckmann and Thurman were determined to capture the unique challenges of raising a child in the city. “The urban environment makes a mother’s challenges more hyperbolic,” Dieckmann explains. Thurman, too, appreciated the film’s treatment of the difficulties encountered when starting a family in a metropolis. “The urban environment is actively antagonistic to family life,” she says. “You and your baby are the last thing that anyone cares about.”

To illustrate this point, Thurman jumps to her feet and begins to pantomime a story from her own life. “Once when I was pregnant, I was at the theatre and I went to the bathroom during intermission,” she explains as she lunges forward, arms outstretched to emphasize the expanse of her girth. “Four other women saw how pregnant I was, and thinking that I would take a long time in the bathroom, ran ahead of me to get there first! It’s just unbelievable how cruel people in cities can be toward families.”

In the film, Eliza meets with many similar roadblocks, from getting her car towed to schlepping groceries by bicycle through the streets of Manhattan. To create these moments, the director drew on experiences from her own life. “I went through almost everything in this film,” Dieckmann attests. “Magnolia Bakery did misspell my daughter’s name on her birthday cake, and refused to fix it, and film crews did disrupt traffic to film on my street.”

Given the film’s clearly gender-oriented title and theme, one might wonder if its intended audience is limited to middle-aged women who’ve endured the hardships of parenting. The short answer, both women quickly assert, is no. Dieckmann—an assistant professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of the Arts—screened the film for many of her male graduate students during post-production. Just as she hoped, even the unmarried, childless, 20-something males in her classes still appreciated the humor and honesty of the film. Thurman dismisses the idea that only women would seek out the film. “When you watch ‘Sid and Nancy,’ is that movie just for druggies?” she asks. “I mean, I watch films about men. Sometimes they’re boring, but when someone does something well, I want to see it, not because I’m a woman or a man, but because I’m a human being.”

Indeed, at its heart, the film is as much a meditation upon the rapid pace of city life as it is an ode to the exhausting yet rewarding experience of being a mother. Musing on the fleeting nature of both a child’s formative years and the ever-changing urban landscape, Thurman grows introspective. “When you’re with your child, you’re in this moment, you’re holding on to it, but the world is changing all around you,” she says. “They’re changing your coffee shop, your playground, your neighborhood—and all you want is to have this moment with your child.”

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