MERMAIDS November 11, 2016
In which Cher’s a serial dater, Christina Ricci’s ready to become an Olympic swimmer, and Winona Ryder’s the thirstiest teenager alive. Perhaps 1990’s Mermaids feels too much like a coming-of-age film for its own good — you could hold its charming quirkiness in the palm of your hand if you tried hard enough — but impossible it is to effectively keep its palpable winning-over abilities at a distance.
Though I suspect Mermaids’s likability would be inevitable even if it weren’t so sure-handed. This is the kind of material that bears the sort of universal truths that made 1983’s Risky Business and 1991’s Flirting such successful studies in the art of growing older.
In Mermaids, Ryder’s the designated person coming of age. Here she’s Charlotte Flax, a fifteen-year-old carrying the burden of her mother's (Cher) bad habit of man-eating and moving across the country whenever her marital prospects wither.
Charlotte’s never much minded living the life of a drifter — she probably used to be more like her perpetually sunny baby sister (Ricci) — but now that romance’s starting to sound fascinating and now that she’s beginning to understand that dwelling in more homes than River Phoenix in Running On Empty (1988) is no way to live, she’s increasingly growing fed up with her mother’s (whom she exclusively calls Mrs. Flax) eternal aimlessness. She longs for independence, to be separate from a woman that loves her but not enough to notice that her selfishness is detrimental to the children she’s raising.
By the end of Mermaids have we decided that Charlotte, has, in fact, grown up a little — she’s experienced love for the first time, has stood up to Mrs. Flax’s bullshit, and has decided what she wants out of life, giving up merely swimming in ideas and notions she’s sat with for so much of her young life. Her character arc is by-the-book in strict coming-of-age film terms, but Ryder, so passionate and so idiosyncratic, makes Charlotte distinctly lovable, a slightly misguided but welcomingly unconventional heroine.
Ditto for Cher, Ricci, and the scene-stealing Bob Hoskins (as the man who could very well be the one that stops Mrs. Flax’s nomadic fickleness), who are, respectively, charismatically eccentric, ethereally adorable, and stirringly considerate. And ditto for director Richard Benjamin and screenwriter June Roberts, too, who make the peculiarities of their characters appealing instead of cloying. Compassion is turned into an art in Mermaids, and we travel back and forth between basking in its offbeat humor and effortlessly feeling for Charlotte and Mrs. Flax, who are both selfish and confused but only so because of their aching vulnerabilities.
The film’s confused itself, anyway — sometimes it plays like a sitcom, sometimes it plays like a humanistic family drama, and sometimes it plays like a dramatic sequence within a sitcom — but it achieves that elusive feat of concocting sympathetic, interesting characters we want to see prosper. I’m sure that has more to do with the casting than the writing — the tone’s vaguely creased around the edges — but resisting its big heart and its kooky mind would be an insult to the warmth it so painstakingly tries to convey. B