Gayle Kirschenbaum, famous for her HBO documentary, A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary, turns the camera on her own family for her newest documentary, Look At Us Now, Mother!. Kirschenbaum puts a big fat disclaimer just as the film begins: “Most of this footage was taken for home video purposes and never intended for an audience.”
However, she felt compelled to share the story after a breakthrough with her mother in therapy. With most popular documentaries focusing on intense subjects like the ill treatment of animals or how the food industry is killing us all, Look at Us is a refreshingly relatable film that doesn’t prompt any letter-writing campaign or crying over humanity. It hits anyone with a parent hard. Don’t be surprised if you hear, “My mom totally does that,” whispered under everyone’s breath for the duration of the hour and 24-minute film.
Here’s the gist: Gayle has a rough relationship with her mother. She brings together footage spanning from her early childhood to the present day that showcases just how, uh, endearing her mother can be. Mrs. Kirschenbaum — Mildred — shouts insults like, “Get a nose job!”; “When are you getting married?”; “You’re abusive!”
Gayle digs deeper into her childhood. She remembers the time she came home an hour past her strict 10 p.m. curfew: Her mother threw a cold glass of water at her face and proceeded to tell her, “I don’t care if you get raped, if you weren’t already.” That’s not something heard every day. Kirschenbaum’s mother is loud, Jewish and always gets her way. A similar comparison is the popular “Crazy Jewish Mom” Instagram account that has amassed more than 800,000 followers. Despite the shocking stories told, the film is not about bad relationships — it’s more interested in repairing them.
The camera follows Gayle and Mildred into their first-ever joint therapy session. The psychologist asks Mildred why she loved tormenting Gayle as a child and her response was, “I don’t remember that.” That was her response to most of the complaints Gayle brought up.
The film also captures the mother-daughter duo in France when Gayle had her “dogumentary” in a festival. The two traveling is just as horrific as anyone can imagine. In a later therapy scene that serves as the film’s climax, Mildred finally apologizes to Gayle and asks for forgiveness. Gayle’s reply is ,“I have to forgive you, otherwise we won’t have a relationship.” What is important about this moment is that the answer is not “because I love you” or “because I think you’re being sincere”; it’s because if she doesn’t forgive her mother, they’ll become like every other senior parent and adult child who don’t talk anymore. This is a truth that seems to be forgotten in film and television today, despite having significant impact for audiences.
The film isn’t perfect. The scenes are choppy, the camera quality is low, and the narrative winds seemingly without direction. Keep in mind that this documentary wasn’t supposed to be made. It was born out of the need to tell a story of forgiveness with the world. It takes courage to base a script off of a personal experience, but it takes even more courage to bring the audience inside a home. Look At Us Now, Mother! may not be taking home an Oscar anytime soon, but that shouldn’t matter. It tells the quiet story that no matter how flawed a family might be, there’s always hope.