DENVER — When the subject of mother-daughter relations looms large on the big screen, it's likely to be fettered by sentimentality. Exceptions do exist. But excess in one form or another routinely shoots up from this emotion-pocked terrain. Consider the recent crop of mother-daughter dramatics: ``Steel Magnolias,'' ``Stella,'' ``Postcards from the Edge,'' and the brand new ``Mermaids.'' In these films, the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship surfaces as conflict - specifically as verbal abuse. Nagging, belittling, and/or emotional sabotage often defines the mothers's approach to parenting, while the grown-up daughters rebel with ferocious truths, half-truths, and sarcasm.
Yet affection defines those relationships, too. Mothers and daughters end their conflicts in truce, embracing each other physically and emotionally.
Though ``Steel Magnolias's'' fine performances sustained interest, the melodrama dripped gooey and questionable sentiments. ``Stella'' force-fed its audience a warped vision of maternal sacrifice.
``Postcards,'' however, explored a complicated Hollywood mother-daughter relationship with wit, intelligence, and honesty. If it never reached the depths of profound revelation, it never sank in syrupy melodrama, either.
Some serious sentimentality floats through ``Mermaids'' however, and it's hard to get an emotional grip on a film in which the mother is distinctly unsympathetic but not a complete monster.
Mrs. Flax (Cher) avoids the unpleasant realities of life by packing up her two kids and moving whenever one of her unwise affairs turns sour. She apparently loves her daughters but is so self-absorbed that their best interests never seem to enter her mind. In open rebellion against her mother's flaky lifestyle, 15-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder) embraces Catholicism with comic ardor. It takes a frightening accident to change the course of mother-daughter relations.
Another filmmaker might have tried harder to convince us that Mrs. Flax is just another charming, wacky nonconformist with a wise-crack for every occasion and a heart as big as Texas. But director Richard Benjamin undermines the clich'e of wacky-equals-wonderful by making Mrs. Flax a little mean-spirited, selfish, spiteful, impatient, unwise, and even hypocritical. Mrs. Flax is not a very nice or understanding lady. But she's not a harridan, either. She can be reached, and eventually, in crisis, her breezy belligerance melts a bit and a better human being emerges.
``Mermaids'' refers to the half-child, half-woman status of Mrs. Flax and Charlotte, and whimsically to the younger, adored daughter Kate, who at 9-years-old is already in training for the Olympic swim team. The simple sweetness of affection between Mrs. Flax and Kate holds a promise of ripened affection between Mrs. Flax and Charlotte.
Winona Ryder gives an exceptional performance as a disapproving child-woman, judging and dreading every move her volatile mother makes. Cher allows Ryder a lot of scope, never eclipsing the young woman with extravagant style. The love between the sisters is one of those rare cinematic touches done so beautifully and simply it seems real and liberating.
``Mermaids'' suffers from an overwrought script. The teenager's internal narration is sometimes hilarious and sometimes phoney.
The film itself never entirely jells - possibly because the artistic vision at work is too tentative: nothing bravely or profoundly true ever surfaces. The resolution comes unbelievably easily. The wounds of so many battles heal too quickly. After all, deep transformation is not an issue here.
Director Benjamin does manage to avoid the saccharine, though he doesn't really grapple with the dismal nature of Mrs. Flax's motherhood. The longing for stability emerges as the older daughter's deepest impulse - the source of her rebelliousness and of her religiosity. But Benjamin doesn't take that impulse far enough; he stops it at the merely psychological.
There's some truth in each of these films, but none of them really points far enough beyond the course of volatile mother-daughter relations to any inspired possibilities. Despite the wildly different approaches and story lines of these films, there's a peculiar sameness too - something having to do with the oppressed daughter trying to stand on her own two feet.
Surely there's more to be said for mothers and daughters. Neurotic dependencies don't define all mother-daughter relationships. Strength, discernment, gentility, wit, selfless concern can also pass from mother to daughter.