Anyone who's ever had a contentious relationship with a parent should find something to relate to in Gayle Kirschenbaum's enjoyable documentary "Look at Us Now, Mother!" The film, which features a lifetime's worth of family photos, home movies, fly-on-the-wall interviews and much more, takes an intimate, unfiltered look at the fraught dynamic between the filmmaker and her now-elderly mom, Mildred, and their long and rocky road to mutual acceptance.
Although a sometimes unnerving and infuriating portrait, the movie falls decidedly — thankfully — short of "Mommie Dearest" territory. That's because as brassy, cutting and controlling as Mildred may be, she's more textbook narcissist than storybook monster; she suffers from a near-fatal lack of introspection.
In some ways, Kirschenbaum's grumpy, undertaker father, Gerald (who died in 2006), would seem as blameworthy as his outspoken wife for Gayle's lack of self-esteem while growing up on Long Island. If Mildred compulsively felt the need to belittle and criticize Gayle for her bumpy nose and hard-to-tame hair, Gerald, despite his own emotional shortcomings and negativity, clearly could have done more to defend his sensitive daughter. And why didn't Gayle's two older brothers (underutilized here) step in more? Sure, Mildred bulldozed everyone around her, but the filmmaker, as candid as she is, lets the men in her life off easier than she does her mother. Even her beloved grandma — Mildred's resourceful immigrant mother — couldn't help Gayle deflect the barbs.
Here's the irony: Kirschenbaum, an accomplished artist, documentarian and TV producer, now 61, is a stylish, attractive woman, perhaps even more so than her vain, harder-featured mother. Gayle and Mildred are also both "big personalities" — feisty, forthright, chatty — and even sound somewhat alike with their distinct "New Yawk" accents. If their rivalry was fueled by any sense of similarity or competition, that goes underexplored.
Still, Kirschenbaum digs for and uncovers many cogent answers as she attempts to unravel her complex family dynamic and come to terms with the mother she clearly loves and needs — and vice-versa. Gayle and Mildred's joint visits to several therapists, other family members, a French film festival, a few vacation spots, plus time spent together in each of the women's current homes (Gayle lives in Manhattan; Mildred in Boca Raton, Fla.) provide many bits of often amusing insight. Mildred's ongoing refrain of "I don't remember" when confronted with the tough questions speaks volumes.
Ultimately, there may be less to Mildred than Gayle might have imagined. Conversely, there's seemingly more to the filmmaker that could have been further explored, starting with why this smart and capable woman remained single — beyond the residual effects of her traumatic childhood.
Nonetheless, "Mother" is definitely worth a look as an involving exercise in parental indiscretion, unexamined and over-examined lives, and a nostalgic look at East Coast Jewish culture.
'Look at Us Now, Mother!'
Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica; Laemmle Town Center 5, Encino