Maternal Triangle

The Good Mother

Written by Michael Bortman

Directed by Leonard Nimoy

At the USA Harvard Square

I hadn't cried at a film since Gone With the Wind, but Leonard Nimoy's The Good Mother brought genuine tears to my eyes. This dramatic and often humorous film manages to duplicate the emotions, the trials and the daily routines of "real life" with a poignancy unmatched by most movies.


In The Good Mother, Nimoy takes a giant step away from the sitcom humor of his last baby movie (Three Men and a Baby). This one is an intense emotional film that establishes Nimoy as a director capable of causing visceral reactions in his audience.

The film is based on the best-selling novel by Sue Miller, and in many ways it outdoes the book. The characters in the movie are far more appealing than those in the novel. Watching them evokes sympathy, while reading about them provokes mainly dislike. As divorced mother Anna Dunlap, Diane Keaton is likeable and unpretentious. When she meets Leo, her lover-to-be, in a laundromat, the scene is free from the air of sleaze that surrounds it in the book.

Keaton skillfully portrays Anna as a woman in search of emotional direction in her life. Although her Anna has a complete and vibrant relationship with Molly, she has never felt romantically fulfilled. We empathize with Anna when she tells a friend about the emptiness of her sex life with Brian and feel her pain when Molly leaves to spend the weekend with her father, just as we later sense the sudden, expansive joy that she finds with Leo.

When the movie opens, the adult Anna is narrating scenes from her childhood family vacations. Her memories center around her unmarried aunt, Babe, who has shocked and alienated the family by becoming pregnant. "In her presence it just seemed like anything was possible," Anna muses. "I wanted to be like her. I wanted to be a passionate person."

Anna meets Leo in a Harvard Square laundromat. (Not least appealing in the film is its local color--several scenes were filmed on location in Harvard Square and Boston where the story takes place. Look for people you know.)

As Leo, Liam Neeson is carefree, appealing, and sensitive--a personality completely different from the slightly slimy character of Miller's novel. The Leo of the movie is definitely not the type who makes a habit of picking up women in laundromats.

THROUGH her relationship with Leo, it seems as though Anna will finally be able to become the passionate, carefree person she wants to be. But the dream is shattered when her ex-husband, Brian (James Naughton), accuses Leo of sexually molesting Molly (Asia Vieria), their six-year old child, and brings a custody suit against his ex-wife.

Unlike in many films, the human relationships here are complex and multi-faceted. Anna and Leo are in love, but there is more to it than sex and holding hands. There are also misunderstandings, anger, frustration and sometimes doubt. At one point, Leo criticizes Anna's attitude toward her life, saying she is not passionate about anything in the way he is about his sculpture. In defensive anger, she rails against him, crying that she doesn't need to be criticized "by someone as lucky as you are. Especially from someone as lucky as you, with the good fortune to be good at what you do."

Anna's family is often unsupportive as she struggles to achieve a more complete image of herself. Her parents are nowhere to be seen, and her grandfather (Ralph Bellamy) is a chauvinistic patriarch who shows only skepticism when Anna declines to accept money from him. "You seem to suffer from some romantic ideas about poverty," he says.

When the custody case begins, Anna is left confused and alone. Nimoy resists the temptation to descend into melodrama here, keeping the custody process a harsh--albeit somewhat abbreviated--reality.

But in the end, the test of goodness here isn't the laughter, tears or shock that you feel during the film--it's the questions that stay with you long after you've left. The Good Mother poses many of these, from how a mother can choose between her lover and her daughter, to what constitutes sexual morality and molestation. These issues remain long after you've left the popcorned seats behind--proof that The Good Mother is a film not easily forgotten. It may even make you cry.