Lorene Scafaria’s “The Meddler,” starring Susan Sarandon as the meddler in question, is the kind of deeply felt personal filmmaking that transcends the specific to reveal a universal truth, in this case, a loving, if exasperated, appreciation for the moms of the world.
One of the more brilliant touches in Scafaria’s script is the voice over, which is done in rambling voicemail messages that Marnie (Sarandon) leaves for her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne). Anyone who’s received a message like this from their mom will be able to relate, as she attempts to squeeze in every thought and bit of news. Lori is a screenwriter, single, mired in a depressive funk after a breakup with an actor and the death of her father. Marnie, too, is trying to find her way in the world in the wake of her husband’s death, having moved from New Jersey to Los Angeles to be closer to her daughter.
So when Lori pushes away her meddling mom, feeling smothered, Marnie finds other people to tend to. She befriends Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael), a young Genius Bar employee at the Apple Store who helps her with her iPhone; she drives him to and from night school. She also babysits for Jillian (Cecily Strong), one of Lori’s friends, and helps her plan her dream wedding (Blues Traveler included).
Marnie happily busies herself with the lives of others and finds some adventure along the way too: She accidentally wanders onto a movie set and becomes an extra for the day; after a mishap with Freddy’s brother, she finds herself stoned and meets a friendly former cop, Zipper (J.K. Simmons). But all the meddling becomes a way for her to avoid dealing with her deeper emotional issues, including the devastating loss of her husband.
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Scafaria clearly took the motto “write what you know” to heart, and in a director’s statement, she describes how the film stemmed from her own experience with her mother. She says: “This is her story, but with a little more adventure.” The honesty and authenticity pays off beautifully in “The Meddler,” which is an accurate depiction of the double-sided love – at once irritated and deeply needy – that an adult daughter can have for her overly involved mother.
That nuanced portrayal of such a delicate relationship is powered by the funny and sweet performance by Sarandon, who is as good as she’s ever been as Marnie. She makes the character lovable and charming, even in her most intrusive moments, and she’s impossible to resist. But there’s also a bittersweetness, a sadness to her meddling, which she does for a lack of anything else to do. Her desire and need to be loved, to be needed, is palpable and moving.
Rose Byrne is also spot-on as the anxious and frayed Lori (she’s also a dead ringer for Scafaria herself). The two actresses perfectly capture the sometimes competing desires of mothers who want to see their children happy, and daughters who want to be happy for their mothers. It’s a complicated emotional register, but the trio of Scafaria, Byrne and Sarandon get it perfectly right. Now, go call your mother.
Rated: PG-13 for brief drug content
Starring: Susan Sarandon, Rose Byrne, J.K. Simmons, Jason Ritter
Directed by: Lorene Scafaria