Having grown up with my mother, from a young age, I harboured a potent hatred for Lifetime Television and their – usually – heinous attempts at made-for-television movies. Occasionally, they would augment their barrage of banal man-hating films with similarly banal man-hating feature films, and I suppose it was in this vein that Stepmom became a staple in their line-up for sometime in the early 00s, playing once a month for some time. Yet, I responded to Stepmom not with my knee-jerk defensive male stance. Despite a deliberately manipulative screenplay from Gigi Levangie, I readily admit to being a legitimate fan of Stepmom.
True, I’d admit that there’s something vaguely disappointing about getting three fine actors like Ed Harris, Julia Roberts and Ed Harris together and ending up with Stepmom as the result. Considering that each of these actors were at their peak in the late nineties you’d expect something stratospheric - Stepmom, though, thrives on its simplicity. At times it even takes comfort in some of the most mundane of cinematic clichés. There’s only the slightest hint that Julia –an actor who is rarely indicative of physical transformations – must represent the latent materialism of Isabel by her imprecisely blonde hair. And, Sarandon – so comfortable in the role of pervading sensibility – wears her hair in those sensible ponytails, making the juxtaposition between practicality and flamboyance all too obvious, and I’ll admit occasionally humorous.
As fine an actor as Harris is though, he struggles in Stepmom with a character that’s a sounding board for the women and their issues. I find it odd that in an ensemble much more permeated by women (The Hours) he manages to come off so excellently, but it’s probably proof of Stepmom and its insularity, something I don’t particularly fault it for. It’s a film about women’s issues, and at its strongest moments there’s a striking amount of self-awareness – regardless of how garish – that makes for some great moments between Julia and Susan. Susan, usually conveying a much warmer temperate in these maternal roles (Little Women, Lorenzo’s Oil), seems to be at odds with Jackie’s harshness in the first half – especially in those arguments with Isabel, where Julia, so naturally winsome, seems so charming I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t love her. It’s a situation somewhat hampered by Jena Malone, in her youth here, who approaches her troubled teen role with that prototypical, very literal, characterisations of child-actors with this role. She oftentimes turns Anna into such a cliché that Liam Aiken’s Ben is a welcome distraction. He manages to be equally strong opposite Roberts and Sarandon.
Of course, though, it’s all about Julia and Susan, and that scene in the café where they both admit to their greatest fears is always poignant to watch – emotionally manipulative or not. As much as I love Julia, I can’t deny that it’s Susan who takes the reins there. But, the nature of Stepmom is such that by the time the film ends a comparison of the two women is furthest from the viewers’ mind. We realise that each woman buttresses the others performances – both lacking what the other has. Julia’s natural cadence with her physicality is in opposite to Susan who exudes a quiet intensity without movement, and that final shot – so very deliberate – of the two always makes me nostalgic, somewhat. And I think, even though Lifetime continues to be awful when it comes to original films I still like to think of them fondly for showing features like Stepmom. It’s one of those films deprecatingly given the “chick-flick” moniker, but it avoids melodrama (albeit by an inch), and I can’t deny I think of it fondly, then and now.