In recent months, we’ve been absolutely spoiled when it comes to great parents onscreen. Laurie Metcalf got a deserved Oscar nom for Lady Bird, Michael Stuhlbarg should have got the same for Call Me By Your Name. But none have filled the role in as many high-profile classics or with as much nuance and verve as Holly Hunter – her latest submission to the great legacy of the Movie Mom being her stunningly humane turn as Beth in last year’s Michael Showalter-directed The Big Sick.
Hailing from the American southeast, Hunter has a diverse, idiosyncratic canon of Movie Mom roles in her back catalogue – from the unstable Ed McDunnough in the Coens’ 1987 Raising Arizona, via the wide-eyed, melancholic Ada in Jane Campion’s 1993 The Piano, through to literal supermum Helen Parr in Pixar’s 2004 The Incredibles (and for a second time this Friday). Despite her unmistakable, thick Georgian drawl, Hunter is remarkable in her ability to bring new angles and ideas to the role of motherhood in film. Her repeat excursions to the concept bring out ever fresher and more nuanced perspectives – exploring the vitality, strength, shortcomings and baked-in humanity of these caregivers.
Beth Gardner, the semi-fictionalised manifestation of Big Sick co-writer Emily V. Gordon’s own mother, is yet another delicately-considered, salt-of-the-earth addition to Hunter’s roster. Big Sick is a gentle culture clash comedy that sees Beth very suddenly and reluctantly in the company of her daughter Emily’s (Zoe Kazan) hapless Pakistani boyfriend Kumail (a barely-veiled fictionalisation of Gordon’s co-writer and husband Kumail Nanjiani) when Emily unexpectedly falls into a coma.
While there’s some lead-balloon racial faux pas early on thanks to Beth’s equally hapless husband Terry (Ray Romano – dropping the most perfectly-timed delivery of the phrase “9/11” in modern comedy), the real clash in Beth and Kumail’s relationship is their differing approaches to caring for Emily. Beth doesn’t take umbrage with the fact Kumail is from a Pakistani Muslim background because she’s racist (she isn’t), but because he has allowed his family to continue trying to find him a wife for an arranged marriage behind Emily’s back, which makes the tension between mother and boyfriend all the more palpable, far more sympathetically manifested and thoroughly maternal.
From her first appearance midway through the film, Hunter is a tightly-wound waking storm of motherly fury. All five-and-a-bit feet of her towers over Kumail, who is in over his head, and Terry, who dissolves into the edges, as she fills the screen with jittery concern for her daughter’s deteriorating health. It’s suppressed, simmering rage at first, threatening to burst out in the slightest quaver of her voice or jerk of her body.
Eventually, of course, it erupts spectacularly when Beth and Terry attend one of Kumail’s comedy club gigs and Beth comes to blows, at first verbal and quickly physical, with a frat bro who crows up telling Kumail to “go back to ISIS”. Without once mentioning Emily or her situation, Hunter evokes the immense strain that her character is subjected to and manifests that in a powerfully manic fit of rage against a stranger. The fact it’s hilarious at the same time is another indicator of her talents.
Beth’s barriers come down in a cathartic sigh in the following scene, as Terry falls asleep on Kumail’s sofa and she confides in their unlikely host. In a brief, tender dialogue exchange, Beth’s standoffish disapproval of Kumail dissolves, as Hunter walks us through a short retelling of her character’s story, her bond with her daughter, and her fears for the future. Nanjiani is very good here too, but he’s a comedian first and an actor second – this tête-à-tête places him very much in Hunter’s hands and his own touching performance is absolutely a natural extension of Hunter’s masterful work.
It’s a beautiful journey that Hunter renders in only a handful of artfully-written scenes provided by Gordon and Nanjiani. Her arc is completed in a brief stretch following Emily’s recovery. Having barely shared a scene with Kazan through the bulk of the film (at least, not with Kazan acting conscious), the two actors evoke a whole unspoken history of conflict, affection and deep connection through subtle gestures and the space between their lines. Beth’s erratic, volatile demeanour is shown through Hunter’s performance to be very much an organic counterpart to her innate, unconditional love for her only child.
While Metcalf got the nomination and Stuhlbarg got the protest campaign, the lack of awards recognition for Hunter went largely unnoticed, it seems. Perhaps that is a further indicator of her inherent ability to ground her performances in the mundane and the unassuming. Mums like Beth are familiar to so many of us: unshowy and humble, but staunch and resolute. Hunter in Big Sick is calling upon every good mother who ever feared for their child. It’s real, gritty and perfectly normal – and it’s a revelation.