Genre: Dramatic Comedy Running Time: 1 hr. 50 min.
Release Date: December 14th, 1990 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Richard Benjamin Actors: Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder, Christina Ricci, Michael Schoeffling, Caroline McWilliams, Paula Plum
n 1963, 15 year-old Charlotte Flax (Winona Ryder) has difficulty accepting her mother’s flaky, Jewish household rule. Instead, she practices her own stricter, variant religious beliefs routinely – intent on one day becoming a nun. Her little sister Kate (Christina Ricci), on the other hand, hasn’t been affected as much by their rather standard familial dysfunction. The trio has moved eighteen times throughout the years, primarily due to Mrs. Rachel Flax’s (Cher) promiscuity and delusions when she unwittingly has affairs with married men. Because of this, Charlotte feels like half of her life has been spent in a car. She’s rebellious and pessimistic, but not destructive, and holds out hope that her father, of whom she only has a single, obscured memory, will eventually return.
When they move once more to a small house in Eastport, just down the road from a picturesque convent, Charlotte meets Joseph “Joe” Porretti (Michael Shoeffling), a handsome young bus driver, who just might be enough to sway her away from her virtuous ideals. She’s overwhelmed by adolescent lust, which becomes particularly problematic when her mother is also inquisitive about Joe’s personal life. But Mrs. Flax has distractions of her own, with her eyes set on Lou Landsky (Bob Hoskins), the owner of a shoe store. As Charlotte battles uncertainty and unacceptable feelings toward Joe (eventually translating to guilt), Rachel must conquer her own fears of settling down, to recognize an unaccustomed comfort and security for her entire family.
Narration by Charlotte puts the perspective clearly from the viewpoint of a teenage girl, with preoccupations on boys, disobedience, concepts of perfect romance and true love, and reversed perceptions of maturity. Charlotte occasionally views herself as the adult, with her mother being the child in their relationship; but her naivety clearly skews her understanding of adulthood. She’s confused and in disharmony, exhibiting regular psychological problems, but her ordeal is continually overlooked via comical transitions from scene to scene. Director Richard Benjamin, working from a script by June Roberts (adapted from the novel by Patty Dann), successfully keeps the comedy and lighthearted attitudes lingering, to overshadow the darker melodrama.
It’s a chronicle of small town, adolescent life – infused with a few historical events – for a girl struggling with becoming a woman. She’s also obviously coping with the absence of a strong male role model. It’s not as funny as the works of John Hughes, and it’s not as bleak or desolate as “The Last Picture Show” (nor is it as bold in its portrayal of sexuality), but it does tackle the powerlessness and lack of freedom perceived by teens during these formative years. Contrastingly, every character is personable and amusingly written, with a persevering wittiness present even during sadder moments. This is aided by exceptional performances by the entire cast, exuding a naturalness that amplifies the humorous frankness of their dialogue, always spoken with uncanny knowledgeableness – as if they’re all self-aware and well-adjusted to their own societal issues. But it seems to purposely omit dramatic conflict, at least until the climax. There’s a spurning of reality for Charlotte, uneasiness around normalcy for Rachel, and annoyance with Rachel’s commitment fears for Lou; but by today’s standards, “Mermaids” represents a simpler time with simpler solutions.
– Mike Massie