LGBT Movies: Mothers and Sons

The idea for PFLAG began in 1972 when Jeanne Manford marched with her son, Morty, in New York’s Christopher Street Liberation Day March, the precursor to today’s Pride parade. After many gay and lesbian people ran up to Jeanne during the parade and begged her to talk to their parents, she decided to begin a support group. ~ PFLAG website

Coming out to mother has become a staple of gay media. Son comes out, mom says something heartwarming (or cruel), and everyone cries. In some cases this is the mom’s sole narrative purpose in her sons’ coming of age story. The following films make the mother/son relationship the primary focus of the film. Some provide interesting and complex roles for women. Some… do not.

The following reviews contain mild spoilers and some of these films contain triggery subject matter.

Disapproving Mothers

Oy Vey!
Three exclamation points in all ~ Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!!

Sometimes it’s religion. Sometimes it’s misinformation. Sometimes they tell themselves they just don’t like their sons’ boyfriend. But each of these mothers must come to terms with their sons homosexuality if they’re going to keep him a part of their lives.

Akron (2015). College boys fall in love. Everything’s sunshine till their mothers reveal a tragic secret from their past. Then comes the wailing and gnashing of teeth. The boys are cute and the lack of homophobia is appreciated, but the treatment of the “secret” feels so contrived that it’s hard to take the second half of the film seriously. Broadway’s Andrea Burns does lovely work with impossible dialogue as the angriest mother. C+

A Little Lust (2015). An angry gay teen runs away from home to follow a gay pop star on tour. His helicopter mother and frosty grandmother pursue. Their friends and relatives get drawn into the chase. The mother/son relationship gets lost amidst an excess of supporting characters. The messy script could cut about 20 minutes of subplots. Still the smart dialogue and likeable leads make it worth watching. B-

Loggerheads (2005). Based on a true story. We follow a depressed woman who gave up her son for adoption, the religious woman who adopted him and self-loathing son himself, who ran away at 17. The most active (and maternal) character is George, a motel clerk, who falls in love with the son and tries to get him back on his feet. The son studies loggerhead turtles who always return to their place of birth to lay their eggs. This movie’s not subtle but it is very sweet. The talented cast and quick editing keep the film engaging despite minimal plot and a tragic undercurrent. C+

Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!! (2009).  When a nice Jewish boy (John Lloyd Young) works up the courage to come out to his parents (Saul Rubinek and Lainie Kazan of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) they freak out. The parents will visit gay bars, activist organizations and conversion therapists in an effort to understand homosexuality. What they don’t do is spend time with their son. The script wants to be a zany farce but the pacing is leaden and nothing is funny.  The actors scream and mumble through 90 endless minutes. F

Touch of Pink (2004). A gay man forces his boyfriend and friends to lie when his Muslim mother comes to visit. The controlling mother and waffling son put the others through a lot of trouble that I found more cringey than funny. Sadly the film wastes its best idea: Kyle MacLachlan as the spirit of Cary Grant. MacLachlan has the look, the voice and the comic timing but the script gives him nothing to do. C-

You Should Meet My Son! (2010). Mae, a ditzy southern belle, suspects her unhappy son, Brian, is gay. She visits a drag bar to educate herself. While the parents in Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!! were horrified by the gay scene she ends up having the time of her life. Next, she invites the drag queens and a gogo dancer to dinner to scare off Brian’s conservative girlfriend. It wants to be Auntie Mame but the shrill performances oversell the weak material. The leading man underplays the self-loathing son but his gloom casts a pall over the film. In the screenplay’s meanest joke he claims that turning 30 means only a woman would have him. D-

You Should Meet My Son 2! (2018). New actors play the same characters. This time shy Brian is engaged to Chase, the gogo dancer from part one. Brian’s insecurities and Chase’s conservative mother threaten to sabotage the wedding. The mother is a cartoon character with a predictable arc. Brian’s inner struggle has higher stakes and gives the third act some pathos. The film has more laughs, and more eye candy, than the prior but it’s still pretty klunky. Actual prejudice is both funnier and scarier than what we get here, but it’s also harder to write about. D+

Disapproving Sons

I Killed My Mother car
He didn’t actually kill his mother. ~ I Killed My Mother

I Killed My Mother (2009). Writer, director, actor Xavier Dolan made his blazing debut with this semi-autobiographical film about a surly teen at war with his mother. Neither is certain why they fight though her divorce and his time in the closet are clearly taking their toll. Dolan’s later films would feature unpleasant characters, but here he infuses mother and son with enough flavors and contradictions that you can empathize with them at their worst. The storytelling wobbles in the third act but the actors remain compelling throughout. The cinematography supports the themes while paying homage to the directors who inspired Dolan. It’s a gorgeous film. A-

Toast (2010). Chef Nigel Slater’s memoir recalls his love for his fragile mother (Victoria Hamilton), his hatred of his brassy stepmother (Helena Bonham Carter) and his passion for cooking. Slater’s an insufferable brat despite being played by two likable actors (Oscar Kennedy and Freddie Highmore). Carter, on the other hand, is delightful and resists his attempts to demonize her. The sluggish, episodic script never builds any momentum. We’re left with surreal art direction and some tasty food porn. C-

Co-dependent Mothers

Helicoper Mom 2
Not as fun as it looks. ~ Helicopter Mom

Dating My Mother (2017). Spoiled twink moves in with his frazzled mother after college. They share a bed… Both try online dating but she finds a nice guy right away while he drowns in rejections. Kathryn Erbe brings depth to the underwritten mother. Patrick Reilly tries to bring some humor to his whiny son. When that doesn’t work, he takes off his clothes. The episodic film has cute moments but lacks stakes, structure and momentum. It also has the audacity to compare itself to The Graduate. C-

Departure (2016). Juliet Stevenson and Alex Lawther play a depressed mother and son visiting the South of France. They can’t talk to each other but they’re happy to deliver angsty monologues to Clement, a butch local boy. There’s a bit of Tennessee Williams and William Inge to the proceedings as their neurotic lust boils over. Lots of symbolism and haunted stares into the middle distance. Just when things are getting dull you’ll get a pulpy exchange like: “That coat is full of holes.” “So am I.”  C

Helicopter Mom (2014). Nia Vardalos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) plays a disturbed mother who smothers and humiliates her teen son. When he says his sexuality is “undeclared” she submits him for an LGBT scholarship and outs him as “gay” at his school. The tone careens between John Waters farce and angsty coming-of-age drama. On the plus side the son’s sexual confusion is played honestly. When the word “bisexual” is finally spoken it is not treated as a punchline. On the minus side the lead actors are too grounded to make the mothers’ behavior seem anything but abusive. The pain she’s causing makes her “comedy” scenes deeply unpleasant. A fascinating misfire. D-

The String (2009). Neurotic son visits his diva mother in Tunisia and falls for her sexy handyman (Salim Kechiouche, in a role he’s played before). Mom finds out and the standard angst ensues. Luckily their wealth and privilege protect them from Tunisia’s anti-gay laws. Surreal dream sequences add spice to an otherwise bland story. The son pictures a literal string tying him to his mother which must eventually be cut. C

Dying Mothers

Other People
“This all just feels like… something that happens to Other People

Crazy All These Years (2016). “Some people weren’t meant to soar.” Prodigal son returns to care for his dying mother and reconnect with a closeted ex. Everyone claims the lead looks gay, but the closet case is just as groomed and sculpted. Mom’s an interesting actress (Cinda McCain) who brings layers to her one note role. The rest are sunk by the slow pace and repetitive monologues. The stagey script makes some points about the lack of closure in life… but it takes 105 minutes to do so. D+

Naked As We Came (2012). Wealthy siblings visit their mother when she’s diagnosed with cancer. Mom’s in a quiet character study, telling the kids to move on and chase their dreams. The kids are in a screechy melodrama involving family grudges and a hunky groundskeeper. Their screaming matches get old fast. D+

Other People (2016). Sad writer (Jesse Plimmons) returns to his estranged family when his mother (Molly Shannon) is diagnosed with cancer. The central family conflict is thinly sketched, though Shannon does a lot with what she’s given. More interesting is the support Plimmons receives from other gay men including an out and proud teen (J.J. Totah), a supportive ex-boyfriend (Zach Woods) and a friend familiar with loss (John Early). A cast full of comedians get to show their dramatic chops. B

Grieving Mothers

Lilting
How many mothers really buy the “room mate” excuse? ~ Lilting

I love my dead gay son! ~Heathers

Lilting (2014). Jun (Pei-Pei Cheng) was placed in a home by her late son (Andrew Leung). Now her son’s “friend” Richard (Ben Wishaw) comes to visit with an English/Mandarin interpreter (Naomi Yang). Richard wants her to move in with him but she resents him and the interpreter censors them. It’s left to the viewer to decide what they understand of each other by the end. The actor’s unsentimental performances ensure the melancholy story is never maudlin. B-

Prayers for Bobby (2009). Based on a true story. Conservative woman (Sigourney Weaver) tries to “heal” her gay son Bobby (Ryan Kelley). It’s 1979 and they get bad advice from therapists, pastors and and well-meaning gay friends alike. When Bobby commits suicide his mother repents and becomes an activist. The film was acclaimed in 2009 but the constant screaming matches feel histrionic in 2019. Still Weaver and Kelley commit 110% to the pulpy dialogue and a message that remains timely. C-

Sitcoms

MARTHA PLIMPTON, JAY R. FERGUSON, NOAH GALVIN, MATT SHIVELY, BEBE WOOD
Better than I expected. ~ The Real O’Neals

Now we come to the strange case of The McCarthys (2014-2015) and The Real O’Neals (2016-2017). Both were autobiographical sitcoms (from Brian Gallivan and Dan Savage respectively) about frazzled gay men (played by Noah Galvin and Tyler Ritter respectively) who clash with their Irish Catholic mothers (played by Martha Plimpton and Laurie Metcalf respectively). Both had lovable, supportive fathers and siblings to moderate the conflict and provide comic subplots.

The McCarthy’s was a throwback with a studio audience and self-contained episodes. The son was 30 and dealing with all the angst that entails. It ran for one season. The Real O’Neals stretched the mother’s homophobia over two seasons, only coming to an understanding when she saw a neighboring family disown their lesbian daughter. Her children were in high school dealing with classes and crushes. O’Neals was the better show, though both were enjoyable.

Short Films and Web Series

Dirty Magazines (2008). Short Film. 1980’s teen’s mother catches him with gay porn and… hires a male prostitute to call his bluff. A sexy variation on the “smoke a whole carton of cigarettes” trope. The amateur actors are uncomfortable with the sitcom dialogue and resort to shouting. C-

Hi, It’s Your Mother (2018). Stop motion animation. Mother injures herself in the kitchen while her closeted son is having sex with his boyfriend. Lots of gore and surreal imagery. Grade: Unfinished.

Little Potato (2017). Wes Hurley and his mother share the story of escaping abuse in Russia only to get stuck with an abusive step-father in the U.S. A depressing story, though they got through it. They’re very dry speakers with subtle humor that comes through at the end. C

My Gay Roommate. Season 2. (2013). Narcissistic gay guy is spending the summer with his rude mother. Cringe comedy ensues.  The lead is cute but this is not the best showcase for him. He does better in the other seasons paired off with neurotic straight guys. D

Naked (2017). Spanish short film. A gay teen is disowned by his tyrannical father. His mother makes an unusual show of support. (NSFW) C

No Place Like Home (2017). Spanish short film. A gay man writes his mother a letter from an Eastern European prison. She lured him home to turn him in to the authorities. The film doesn’t dig into her psyche or the sons’ subsequent fate. The closing caption simply states that this is something that still happens around the world. Grim. C

The Rest

Evening Shadows 2
‘When a son comes out of the closet, he pushes his mother into the closet.’. ~ Evening Shadows

Some I couldn’t finish. Some I could barely start.

Evening Shadows (2018).  South Indian mother finds herself trapped between her modern gay son and her abusive husband during a rocky holiday visit. Mona Ambegaonkar gives a thoughtful performance as the conflicted mother, but the one note supporting cast and wailing soundtrack push things into high melodrama. Coming out stories are new to Bollywood but have already been handled with more nuance in films like Time Out and Kapoor & Sons.

Floating Skyscrapers (2013). Competitive swimmer falls for a man, to the shock of his mother and girlfriend. Tears, violence and tragedy ensue.

Running With Scissors (2006). Augusten Burroughs’s mentally ill mother signed over custody of him to her predatory “therapist.” They lived in his cult like household where Augusten was raped and abused. Burrough’s harrowing memoir finds the gallows humor in the situation, but it’s a dark read. Ryan Murphy attempted to adapt the story into a campy all-star comedy. The tonally confused movie was a critical and financial flop. I finished the triggery book but couldn’t get far into the film.

Trends

“There are two things I demand from the people in my life: love and respect.” ~ Torch Song Trilogy

  • 6 moms already know their son is gay when the story begins.
  • 5 moms try to match their sons with eligible women.
  • 2 moms try to match their sons with eligible men.
  • 8 sons end the film in a happy romantic relationship.
  • 5 moms end the film in a happy romantic relationship. (Dads tend to be dead, absent or mean in these films).
  • 5 films feature violent gay bashings. One of which proves lethal.
  • 2 of these films feature stars of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Films I’d recommend watching: A Little Lust, I Killed My Mother, Lilting and Other People.

Who are your favorite mothers in LGBT+ media? Who are the most complex? Read more reviews of LGBTQ+ media here.