Mrs. Flax (Cher) is an eccentric mother who uproots her family every time one of her relationships goes sour. She raises two young girls on her own, gets work wherever she can find it, and every now and then decides that she wants to start over completely, packing up the family and moving to a new town.
Charlotte (Winona Ryder), the eldest Flax daughter, is a 15-year-old struggling with her sense of identity and thinking of becoming a nun when she finds herself falling in love unexpectedly.
Young daughter Kate (Christina Ricci) seems somewhat oblivious, happily floating through life as it comes to her. She dreams of swimming the English Channel someday.
Set in the early- to mid-1960s, this film is a character-driven, “coming-of-age in mid-century America” tale. Mermaids was directed by Richard Benjamin (Catch-22, Deconstructing Harry). The film is based on a novel by Patty Dann, adapted for the screen by June Roberts.
Mermaids contains a couple of anachronisms, but the most obvious one to me was a modern label shown on a can of fruit, so in general the 1960s are captured quite well. The set design is nicely done and some of the vintage props are enviable pieces I’d love to own (the radios, the cars!). Sometimes the film does seem more late ’80s/early ’90s visually (the costume party being one example), but I can’t fault it too heavily for this — it’s a common trend in period films produced in the late 20th century.
The music is also really great. Smokey Robinson’s “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me” and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” are just two of the fantastic tunes featured in the film’s soundtrack. (These songs were released in 1962 and 1963, respectively. The film opens in 1963, so they’re perfectly suited the period.)
To anchor itself in the period, the film of course chooses one of the biggest events of the 1960s to portray in its story: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
The assassination is handled in an understated and realistic manner. There’s frenzy in Charlotte’s classroom when the news is first learned. On her way home, everyone seems to be in a state of shock. Some young children are shown playing, going about their day as if nothing has happened, their parents obviously having shielded them from the news. Charlotte is shown crossing the street despondently as a radio announcer reviews the day’s events, and then begins questioning why God could let something like this happen.
Having not been alive when the assassination occurred, I can’t speak completely to the film’s accuracy in this respect, but the portrayal of Charlotte’s reaction seems very natural and aligns with the accounts I’ve heard/read about that day (though, of course, not everyone ran to a bell tower to mack on an older man upon hearing the news).
Though solid as a 20th century period drama, the performances and script are the true shining elements of the film.
Winona Ryder narrates the film and serves as its main focus in her character of Charlotte. She also gives the stand-out performance. She perfectly embodies her character’s conflicted nature, confusion, and distinctly-teenaged maturity level. Her attitude toward Joe, particularly early on in the film, is one of naivety and infatuation — two very common attitudes for 15-year-olds to experience, making Charlotte quite an easy character to relate to.
To the credit of novelist Dann and screenwriter Roberts, the story takes a few unexpected turns. Ryder’s character develops in and interesting way, regressing deeply into childish and irresponsible behavior before experiencing any growth. Cher’s character of Mrs. Flax actually makes a more traditional journey, losing some of her wacky-ness and eccentricity by the end of the film to become a more responsible parent.
I’m kind of surprised it took me so long to watch Mermaids given my unfailing love for films of the ’80s and ’90s, and my unfailing love for mid-century period pieces. Regardless, I’m glad I’ve discovered it now. It isn’t slathered in authenticity, but it’s a good film.