by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film was Sins of the Mother, which I had imagined from the title would be a thriller about a woman discovering that her mom was a criminal or something, but instead it turned out to be a tear-jerker (and a remarkably effective one) with African-American principals — only a handful of white actors are seen in the film — which begins at a medical school in Iowa, where Shay Harris (Nicole Beharie) is working as a teaching assistant and is about to write her thesis when she gets into an “altercation” with a dean who accuses her of verbally abusing her students. She’s told by her thesis advisor that she should take a year off — in fact the dean wanted to fire her outright and he had to pull strings to keep her suspension to a year — and with no money to pay her rent she goes to the only place she has available: Tacoma, Washington, where she grew up and her mother Nona (Jill Scott) is living.
The problem is that there’s about sixteen tons of baggage between mom and daughter; when Shay — or “Lashaye,” as mom insists on calling her, using the full form of her name the daughter long since gave up — mom was an active alcoholic, frequently getting drunk and puking and forcing Shay to put her to bed and take care of her the best a pre-pubescent kid could do. Now mom is in A.A. and has a sponsor, Lois (Mimi Rogers), while herself sponsoring Ivy (Katherine Isabelle — between her own name and the character’s she has three first names, which calls to mind my trivia question, “What major rock star has five first names?” Answer: his real name is Reginald Kenneth Dwight and his stage name is Elton John — five first names); she’s also putting little post-it notes with inspirational slogans all over her house and bidding her daughter read and follow them. She’s also an amateur gardener who has a so-called “God box” in which she writes her innermost desires on slips of paper, then buries them in dirt and lets nature mulch them, which is supposed to communicate them to God. (Right.)
It soon becomes clear that Shay’s flame-out at school is due to the residual hostility she bears her mother — which now that they’re under the same roof is becoming a good deal less residual — especially since Shay is bitter that she now has a half-sister, Sunshine — “Sunny” for short (Monaeya Silveira) — whose father was a fellow A.A. member she rendezvoused with for a one-night stand. (She used to do that sort of thing when she was drinking — Shay’s most terrifying childhood memory was of one week when she was 13 and mom left her alone in the house to shack up with a guy in a motel, and while she was gone two other men in her “circle” came over and started yelling, “Hey, Nona, we want to PAR-TEE!,” leaving Shay scared that if they got in they’d molest her.) The basic conceit — the film was written by Elizabeth Hunter from a novel by Carleen Brice called Orange Mint and Honey (after Nona’s favorite flavorings for her tea) — is that when Shay was actually a child her mom was so dependent, thanks to alcohol, that their roles were reversed: Shay was the “mother” and Nona the errant “daughter.” Now that Nona is clean and sober and seems to have it together, she’s asserting herself as a mother to Shay, who’s bristling at this out of the reasonable belief that mom should have behaved like this when Shay was still a girl and hence needed a mother.
Shay doesn’t get to stay a houseguest for long because mom insists that she either get a job or be Sunny’s babysitter — and she regards the former as less terrible. She hires on at a store called Neptoon Records — which seems to sell quite a few more LP’s than CD’s, by the way — where she’s already shopped and attracted the attention of Oliver Tolliver (Matt Ward), who’s supposed to be younger than Shay (though they look about the same age on screen), who also works there; though a friend of Shay’s who’s getting married attempts to set Shay up with a co-worker of her fiancé, from the moment we see him we’re visually unimpressed, read him as a stuck-up Buppie (Black Yuppie) and figure Oliver’s a much better man for Our Heroine (and the fact that Matt Ward is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous and quite frankly looks like the Great Black Hope for African-American leading men once Denzel Washington and Will Smith are definitively too old for those gigs certainly doesn’t hurt). They start dating, she eventually spends a lot of time at his home, and one night the romance is in the air and he’s ready but she makes the confession that even though she’s 25 she’s still a virgin — getting laid for the first time has been just another one of those rites of passage she has put off in pursuit of her workaholism — but she’s ready to lose her virginity then and their and Oliver is the man she wants to lose it to (damned good choice!). I chuckled when she named her favorite singers as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, and Oliver replied, “Don’t you like anybody from this century?” (I can relate: I sometimes ask myself, “Mark, when was the last time you bought a CD by someone who’s still alive?”)
Ivy, Nona’s sponsee, falls off the wagon big-time out of jealousy that Nona is giving her daughter more attention than her; Shay gets upset when Nona makes a big confessional speech in church, thanks Sunny for giving meaning to her life and makes only the most perfunctory mention of “my other daughter, LaShaye,” provoking the daughter to stand up in church and scream, “It’s Shay! If you can’t acknowledge me, the very least you can do is get my name right.” The resolution of the plot depends on one of the hoariest clichés in moviedom, the Unplanned Pregnancy at a Single (unprotected — Oliver’s condom broke) Contact, which leads Shay briefly to consider an abortion before she accepts responsibility for the baby and agrees to go back to Iowa and finish her thesis, then return to Washington and Oliver for a more or less normal family.
There are some nice felicities in the script — when Nona and Shay are talking about the future of Shay’s relationship with Oliver, Nona tells her, “At least he’s going to college, he has a job and he’s not either dealing or using crack, and that’s a lot better than I ever did picking a man”; earlier Oliver becomes quite taken with Shay’s middle name, “Glory,” and makes the chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” of all things, “their” song — and though I wish director Paul A. Kaufman would have given us more (and more explicit) soft-core porn of Oliver and Shay in bed, he gets this story on and off screen with a minimum of trick devices and a maximum of emotion. Sins of the Mother is hardly as dire a story as its title makes it seem, but within the limits of the soap-opera genre it’s actually quite moving and well worth watching — certainly better than I thought it would be when I put it on!