If I told you the plot summary of Parallel Mothers, it might sound like a soap opera. Such is the case with many of Pedro Almodóvar’s films. In his invaluable hands, though, Parallel Mothers is one of the year’s most shocking, surprising, and deeply human stories. Penélope Cruz and Milena Smit play two mothers whose lives become intertwined by pure chance. Their emotional journey ranges from touching to devastating, subverting almost every expectation in satisfying ways.
A film like this is best experienced going in blind. If the previous paragraph wasn’t enough to sell you, here’s the spoiler-free setup. Cruz stars as Janis, a middle-aged photographer who unexpectedly becomes pregnant. The father Arturo (Israel Elejalde) feels unable to commit because his wife is dying from cancer. Janis decides to raise the baby on her own, but leaves the door open for Arturo to be part of their daughter’s life. Going into labor, Janis encounters another expecting woman named Ana (Smit). Ana isn’t thrilled about the pregnancy, especially since she has a difficult history with her own mother (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón). Nevertheless, Janis gives Ana a confidence boost, and the two strike up a friendship.
At first, Janis and Ana casually text one another. Over time, their relationship evolves into something much more profound. Behind this friendship and potential romance is an earth-shattering secret. If mishandled, the film’s premise could’ve gone wrong in so many different ways. Yet, Almodóvar handles the subject matter with authenticity and sincerity. About forty minutes into Parallel Mothers, a character makes a choice that some might find questionable. If you were in this person’s shoes, though, you might do the same. Almodóvar respects his characters and everyone grows in genuine ways. Yet, this doesn’t soften the blow when an inevitable confrontation arises.
Motherhood and loss are two of the most common themes in Almodóvar’s films. All About My Mother centered on a woman who loses her son in a car accident. Volver explored grief and parental bonds in fantastical ways. Parallel Mothers is another unique approach to both subjects, finding new ways to tell a familiar story. Cruz is another staple of Almodóvar’s work, but Parallel Mothers never feels like a rehash of their previous collaborations. Cruz gives one of her most layered performances as a mother torn between what’s best of herself, what’s best for her child, and what’s best for everyone else involved. Even if you don’t agree with everything Janis does, Cruz makes us empathize and identify with her every step of the way.
Although Parallel Mothers was submitted for Best International Film consideration at the Academy Awards, Spain ultimately went with The Good Boss instead. Having not seen the other film yet, I can’t say if Spain made the right call. In a phenomenal year for international cinema, though, it’s hard to imagine anything topping Parallel Mothers. The film draws parallels to Blue Is the Warmest Colour, The Handmaiden, and Portrait of a Lady on Fire. All three films featured a prominent relationship between two women, and all three should’ve been up for the Oscar. For one reason or another, though, they weren’t. The Academy is unlikely to correct this reoccurring issue, but Parallel Mothers will be remembered with or without an Oscar.