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The 10 Most Dysfunctional Mother-Daughter Relationships of All Time in Movies, Ranked

It’s Mother’s Day, time to send flowers and chocolates, and take your mom to brunch… or not. It’s become much easier, in recent years, to confess if you don’t have a picture-perfect, Hallmark holiday relationship with your mom. It can still be a hard time of year, with a bombardment of promotional email reminders that you’re running out of time to get your mom the perfect gift.

And it’s a relationship that can be especially fraught for daughters. So in honor of those who might be skipping the greeting cards, we’ve compiled a list of movies featuring the most dysfunctional mother/daughter relationships committed to film. So take yourself out to brunch, buy yourself some flowers and chocolates, and enjoy watching someone else’s dysfunctional relationship.



10 The Turning Point (1977)

20th Century Studios

There’s no mom like a stage mom who had to give up on her own dreams, but has a daughter with a decent chance of realizing them, and Shirley MacLaine is just that as DeeDee in this 1977 drama set in the world of professional ballet. Pregnancy derailed her own plans of stardom, although her best friend Emma (Anne Bancroft) stuck with it and became a renowned ballerina. The trouble comes after DeeDee and Emma reunite, and DeeDee’s daughter Emilia (professional dancer Leslie Browne) is lured to New York to dance, and it’s decided that DeeDee will accompany the shy teen.

Emilia begins to see a dancer in the company (played by the world-famous Mikhail Baryshnikov), and, away from her husband, DeeDee embarks upon an affair herself. DeeDee and Emma (who is also Emilia’s godmother) clash over Emilia’s relationship and career choices, making her the battleground when it’s really their own choices they are fighting about. (Interestingly, the plot was inspired by the relationship between Leslie Browne’s real-life mother Isabel Mirrow Brown, and godmother and prima ballerina Nora Kaye.)

9 Terms of Endearment (1983)

Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine in Terms of Endearment
Paramount Pictures

As you can see from the last entry, Shirley MacLaine was onto something playing a dysfunctional mother, and as widowed Aurora, mother to Emma (Debra Winger), she won a Best Actress Oscar in 1984. Aurora and Emma have a pretty classic co-dependent relationship, sometimes trying to escape each other, but inevitably unable to do so. Emma marries Flap (Jeff Daniels), has three children, and moves away, but the two women stay in constant telephone contact. Both women struggle with loneliness; Emma suspects Flap of cheating and gets close to a man named Sam (John Lithgow) while Aurora strikes up a fiery relationship with her next-door neighbor/retired astronaut Garrett (Jack Nicholson).

But when Emma is diagnosed with cancer, Aurora drops everything to care for her. As dysfunctional relationships with a mother go, this one is pretty familiar: she may drive you crazy, but she’s there when it counts.

8 Chinatown (1974)

Faye Dunaway and Belinda Palmer in Chinatown
Paramount Pictures

Roman Polanski’s 1974 neo-noir masterpiece Chinatown is famous for many things: a wickedly twisty plot, Jack Nicholson with a band-aid on his nose, and Faye Dunaway screaming, “My sister! My daughter!” Dunaway plays the lovely and mysterious Evelyn Mulwray, whose husband has been found drowned. Private investigator Jake Gittes finds himself on the trail of Mulwray’s mistress, or is she? Gittes and Evelyn become entangled, and his confusion grows when he spots her with Mulwray’s mistress, whom she says is actually her sister.

The dreadful truth eventually comes out that the woman in question is both Evelyn’s sister and her daughter, conceived when she was raped by her wealthy and powerful father, Noah Cross (John Huston). The film doesn’t end happily for anyone, but it did give Dunaway one heck of an unforgettable scene.

Related: The 10 Best Neo-Noir Movies Ever Made, Ranked

7 Mildred Pierce (1945)

Anne Blyth and Joan Crawford in Mildred Pierce
Warner Bros.

There was a 2011 TV adaptation of James M. Cain’s noir novel Mildred Pierce that starred Kate Winslet, but it’s hard to beat the 1945 melodrama starring Joan Crawford, which is in the Library of Congress National Film Registry. Crawford is Mildred, the very picture of a self-sacrificing mother, slaving over baked goods to sell to support her two daughters after divorcing their father.

Her younger daughter, Kay, is very sweet, and naturally dies of pneumonia, while her older daughter Veda (Ann Blyth) is a materialistic snob and vicious social climber, all of which Mildred ignores as she does everything she can to make Veda happy. The movie is mostly told in flashback after the murder of Mildred’s second husband, who Mildred only really marries in order to boost her social status and hopefully bring Veda back home. One guess who the killer is.

6 I, Tonya (2017)

Margot Robbie and Allison Janney in I, Tonya

We watched the Tonya Harding Olympic debacle unfold on live TV, crowbars, sequined skirts and all. Margot Robbie gave Tonya a softer side in this 2017 black comedy/mockumentary, and it’s apparent that much of her harder side was a direct result of being raised by her single mother LaVona Golden (an excellent Allison Janney, who won a Golden Globe for the role).

Living with LaVona was likely key in Tonya’s decision to marry the sleazy Jeff Gillooly while still only a teenager. After the infamous attack on Nancy Kerrigan, when Gillooly has already thrown Tonya under the bus by claiming she was aware of the attack beforehand, LaVona comes to see Tonya, seemingly softened. But it turns out she’s wearing a wire, trying to get Tonya to confess. No Mother of the Year awards here.

Related: The Most Heart-Wrenching Sports Movies of All Time

5 Secrets & Lies (1996)

Secrets & Lies
FilmFour Productions

Mike Leigh’s harrowing 1996 family drama stars Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, a Black British optometrist looking for her birth family. What she finds is a shock in many ways: her mother is a white factory worker named Cynthia (Brenda Blethyn, who won Best Actress awards for the role at Cannes and the Golden Globes) who already has a difficult relationship with the daughter she kept, Roxanne. Already tense family dynamics are thrown into chaos when Hortense arrives on the scene, Cynthia never having told anyone in the family of her existence.

Tensions are also high with Cynthia’s sister-in-law Monica, who is unable to have children of her own. There are heartbreaking scenes of Cynthia revealing, or almost revealing, the identities of her daughters’ fathers. It’s not about anyone setting out to have terrible familial relationships, but rather how they can be handed to us by circumstances beyond our control.

4 The Piano Teacher (2001)

Isabelle Huppert and Annie Girardot in The Piano Teacher
Kino International

Michael Haneke pulled no punches with his 2001 adaptation of Elfriede Jelinek’s twisted psychological novel. Isabelle Huppert is brittle and seemingly repressed as the difficult daughter Erika, a Viennese piano professor who lives with her controlling mother (Annie Girardot). But underneath Erika’s icily calm exterior, there lurks a roiling tendency towards sadomasochism and self-harm, amidst other fetishistic behavior.

She embarks upon a dangerous relationship with a handsome young student (Benoît Magimel), inevitably repulsing him with a list of the sexual acts she’s interested in. We find out that Erika still shares a bed with her mother, and there’s a highly uncomfortable scene of Erika kissing and pawing at her mother, who has clearly gone through this kind of thing before with her daughter.

3 Carrie (1976)

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie
United Artists

You can’t talk about bad moms without mentioning Piper Laurie as the religiously demented Margaret White, mother to Sissy Spacek’s Carrie in the 1976 horror classic. Instead of sympathizing after the naive teen is pelted with tampons after getting her first period, Margaret insists that getting her period was punishment for her sins, and she’s enraged when Carrie gets dressed and leaves for the prom.

You can maybe find a little sympathy for Margaret, whose puritanical views were clearly drummed into her the way she’s trying to force them upon her own daughter, but that sympathy will likely dry up when she stabs Carrie in the back with a kitchen knife, and you’ll probably cheer when, with the help of a little telekinesis, Carrie crucifies her mother in the doorway with a variety of kitchen utensils.

2 Mommie Dearest (1983)

Mara Hobel and Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest
Paramount Pictures

Faye Dunaway joins Shirley MacLaine in making her second appearance on this list, as screen icon Joan Crawford (see Mildred Pierce, above), in the 1983 adaptation of Crawford’s adopted daughter Christina’s lurid, tell-all autobiography.

Roundly panned by critics at the time, it has become a cult favorite, largely due to Dunaway’s over-the-top performance as the demanding, controlling Crawford, hauling her angelic blond daughter out of bed to scream about hangers, razing her cherished rose garden after bad reviews, throwing Christina sumptuous birthday parties with lavish gifts which she must then selflessly donate to charity. Nominated for (and winning) a number of Golden Raspberry Awards, it’s a camp classic that will at least remind you not to buy any wire hangers.

1 Grey Gardens (1975)

Little Edie and Big Edie in Grey Gardens
Portrait Releasing

Camp in a very different way from the previous entry, Grey Gardens is the iconic 1975 documentary about a dysfunctional mother/daughter relationship for the ages: Big Edie and Little Edie Beale, relatives of former First Lady Jackie O who came to media attention after a hoarding situation was discovered at their East Hampton home. Filmmaker brothers Albert and David Maysles captured the women’s strange relationship, during which they constantly chastised, criticized, and misunderstood each other, but also seemed unable to live without one another.

Their world consists solely of the two of them, barring a few side characters like Jerry the handyman, and it’s hard to reconcile their sorry state in the film with what is known of their previous high-flying social lives. The two Edies are equal parts endearing and off-putting, and the loving way in which the Maysles brothers put the film together put it consistently at the top of lists of the best documentaries of all time.

This story originally appeared on Movieweb

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