Spoiler Alert: I am about to discuss the ending of Spanglish, having just seen it for the third time—so anyone who doesn’t want to know “what happens” better cease and desist or accept the consequences.
Spanglish is a film that provides a whole new angle on the mother-daughter relationship. The movie is primarily about the immigrant experience, but the mother-daughter dyad is a major component. Writer/director James Brooks has set up an almost too obvious contrast-and-compare of the familial pairings—the American Bernice (Sarah Steele) and her mother, Deborah Clasky (Tia Leone), and the Mexican Christina (Victoria Luna) and Flor Moreno (Paz Vega). Extra spice is tossed in with the character of Evelyn, played by a sardonic Cloris Leachman, as Deborah’s mother. The ending, however, throws obvious out the window and saves the film from the realm of cliché.
In the typical immigrant story, the second generation defects from their parents; to achieve personal success, they must necessarily distance themselves from their cultural roots and, subsequently, their families. In one complex, event-filled, life-changing summer, Christine Moreno takes her first steps into American success. She almost makes it to the starting line, but before the opening shot is fired, her mother, in an act of supreme confidence and bravery, slams on the brakes.
After spending a summer at the beach home of the Claskys, her mother’s employers, Christine gets a scholarship to Bernice’s fancy LA private school. This comes about from the meddling of Deborah Clasky, who wants to “help” the intelligent, charming girl. On the surface it represents an unprecedented educational opportunity, but when Flor visits the school she rightly suspects it will turn Christine into a slice of white bread. Even Bernice’s father, played by an uncharacteristically subdued Adam Sandler, says he worries about what the school is doing to his kids. Thus, after quitting her job with the Claskys, Flor delivers the bad news to Christine: she’s not going to let her attend the school.
During their walk and bus ride home, daughter confronts mother with the usual tears and accusations. Christine has more of a case than many daughters in rebellion—this is, after all, about her education—and surely some members of the audience are outraged by Flora’s actions. She won’t budge, however, not even when Christine literally pushes her away with that most American of all clichés, “I need space.” Me, I wanted to cheer when Flor stuck her face into her daughter’s and said, “Uh uh, between you and me is no space!” A few minutes later Flor poses the question at the heart of the matter: Do you really want to become someone so different from me?
For Christine, it’s as if she’s been struck on the head with a hammer: she wakes up and makes the decision that will set the stage for her future. She recognizes that she does not want to become other, does not want to leave her mother and her culture behind in the flotsam and jetsam of what passes for American success. This represents a stunning new twist in the immigrant story. Flor deviates from the maternal script to want her daughter to do “better” than herself. Flor refuses to “sacrifice” their relationship for some dubious better future for her daughter.
This term, sacrifice, is used all the time to define the essence of American experience and the American family. Frankly, it’s a concept I’ve never understood, and about which I’ve often felt guilty, wondering if I’m missing some essential parental gene. But if every parent sacrifices for the next generation, when do people begin to live on their own account? When is it okay to simply live one’s own life? According to the American Dream, not only are individuals expected to sacrifice, but whole generations are expected to do so. Everyone is supposed to struggle and strive. When does anyone get to relax and enjoy their lives?
In specific terms of the mother-daughter relationship, when have we ever heard or seen a daughter who wants to be like her mother, a daughter whose every move, breath and action isn’t intended to separate herself in some way from the hated maternal figure? I can’t recall ever seeing a film or play, or reading a book, in which any daughter beyond the age of puberty wished to emulate her mother. The perfect emblem of this denouement is Stella Dallas, in which a mother parts forever from her daughter so she can marry a wealthy man without being embarrassed by her lower-class roots. Think of the values touted in Stella Dallas: the mother-daughter relationship is far less important than material gain!
If ever a fictional mother prevents her daughter from “bettering” herself, she’s portrayed as deeply neurotic, clinging, and overbearing. Flor is anything but neurotic: it bears mentioning that she’s a role model worthy of emulation–a gorgeous, smart, kind and loving woman who strives to make her life and her daughter’s life function at a fairly decent level without sacrificing herself entirely.
Virginia Woolf, writing of female friendship in A Room Of One’s Own, posed the question of what the world might be if, in a novel, women actually liked one another, if, as she put it,“Chloe liked Olivia.” What would happen if mothers and daughters were portrayed liking one another, if daughters admired their mothers so much they aimed to be like them? What if the prevailing American values were more in keeping with those of Flor and Christine?
I wonder if we’ll ever know.
On a somewhat lighter note, I must mention that one of my favorite things about Spanglish is Tia Leoni’s performance. She is hilarious, an absolute gem and a pleasure to watch. Given the stunning looks of Paz Vega and Victoria Luna, and their wonderful performances, whoever played Debora Clasky had to be really special to stand out here—and Tia Leoni is.
- 35 reviews of Spanglish (rateitall.com)