Full disclosure: I love absolutely everything there is to love about Mermaids. I love how it’s funny and quirky without losing any heart. I love how extraordinary the cast is (I don’t think I’ve ever watched this movie as an adult without making some remark about how flawless Bob Hoskins was as Lou). I love how it honors the book it was based on while fleshing out the characters who didn’t get a lot of page time in a way that doesn’t compromise the spirit of the story. And I love the soundtrack so much that it has a solid place in my go-to listening material. I totally get that it’s supposed to serve as a coming-of-age movie, and it does, complete with all the awkwardness, hilarity and heartbreak that comes as a package deal with adolescence. I’m on board with that; after all, it’s Charlotte’s voice over for a reason. But for me, Mermaids has always been about who I love most about the film: Mrs. Flax.
I will admit, a big part of that is because I practically worship at the altar of Cher, and have since I was eight and had my mind blown to bits hearing “Believe” on the radio for the first time. In spite of that, the first time I saw Mermaids—ah, those impressionable pre-teen years—I knew Rachel Flax was a portrait of the woman I wanted to be when I grew up, mainly for the abundance of self-confidence she carried with her everywhere she went. As a kid, I was always shy around people I didn’t know, questioning myself constantly in the midst of strangers; and if I’m being honest, I still get this way at twenty-five. It amazed me to see Rachel consistently put herself in a new town with new faces and never back down even slightly from who she is. Over the years, and over countless viewings of this movie, my love and appreciation for her continued to grow. She’s not perfect and she never claims to be, but she is well-intentioned. She has a big personality and doesn’t care to cover it up. She’s fiercely independent, strong, and protective when it comes to the people she loves. And while she can be stubborn, she’s not averse to conceding…she just might need a little extra push to do it.
But this is all just scratching the surface. My finger’s already on the map (glory glory hallelujah), so why don’t you join me on a trip to Eastport to see what makes Mrs. Polka Flax such a powerhouse?
Her culinary creations are wonderful.
Let me throw this over to Charlotte for a second: “A word about Mrs. Flax and food: the word is ‘hor d’oeuvres.’ Fun Finger Foods is her main sourcebook, and that’s all the woman cooks. Anything more, she says, is too big a commitment.” I can’t cook to save my life, but I also don’t really want to. You could probably chalk this up to laziness (okay, you could definitely chalk this up to laziness), but I honestly can’t remember the last time I made something more complicated than Easy Mac for myself. That being said, I could absolutely get behind Rachel’s cooking methods. I know you could correlate the whole commitment thing to the bigger picture of Rachel’s life, skipping town all the time without fully committing to much of anything. But if we’re strictly speaking about food, I feel this so hard.
Not only that, her presentation is impeccable. Little American flags on her bagels? The symmetrical arrangement of those marshmallows? Sign me up for all of that. And seriously, Charlotte is justified in her frustration, but in any other circumstance, how could you possibly be angry with a star-shaped sandwich in your hand?
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that in the course of my research for this post, I found out that there is, in fact, a Mrs. Flax’s Fun Finger Foods book that was released as a promotional tool for the movie. If anyone happens to find a copy for me, I will be your best friend for life. And maybe make you some marshmallow kabobs.
She speaks her mind.
Life’s too short to keep things bottled up, which is why I have to bow down to Mrs. Flax for having no filter. Whether she’s criticizing Charlotte’s history teacher on sight (“He’s driving an Edsel, for Christ’s sake.”) or discussing her swollen pregnancy feet with a couple of nuns—much to her daughter’s dismay—if you come into conversation with Rachel, you come into conversation with a straight shooter, even if that conversation is post-coital (Case in point, Lou: “Are you always this aggressive after sex?” Rachel: “You call this aggressive?”). It’s a candor that may not be for everyone, but you will always know where Mrs. Flax stands on any given matter. And that’s a gift, if you choose to accept it.
She mastered the art of the simile.
Need I say more?
She’s smooth as hell.
This woman has skills I could never possess. She turned a completely innocent conversation in a shoe store about trying to keep kosher into a 100% successful flirtation—in front of nuns, no less—AND she lands a first date at her kid’s parent/teacher night? Impressive. And you know that this stuff is effective, because more often than not, Lou has some sort of reaction when she leaves the room, and those reactions are everything. Again, it’s that confidence in herself that exudes from her. She knows she’s got it, and she is absolutely going to flaunt it. Four for you, Rachel.
You never know when she’s going to drop a pearl of wisdom.
It can be so easy to get caught up in Rachel’s bold and eccentric demeanor that when she offers up something as thought-provoking as the above, it tends to have a delayed reaction. I can’t tell you how many times I just let this line slide before I was finally moved to pause the movie and say, “Oh, damn…” While I personally think it depends on the place you’re in (if you asked me about it six years ago, when I was in my hometown knowing that I wouldn’t be able to grow there, I would have emphatically agreed with every bit of this), Mrs. Flax has a point. Getting too wrapped up in the past keeps you out of the present and doesn’t leave any room at all for the future. Yes, the past helps to build who you are, but if you’re not continuing to build in the now, you’re not truly living. It’s the kind of thing that makes you want to go back and see what other words of wisdom you might have missed. And it’s the kind of thing to which I’ve dedicated at least one rewatch of this movie.
She has the right idea about aging.
We live in a messed up society where, for some reason, women are judged when they try to do things at a certain age. Maybe society should take a page from the Rachel Flax guide to life. The whole “I’m never growing old” mentality opens up the doors to endless possibilities, and if Mrs. Flax didn’t seize the day like she did, we would have been given a much more boring film. I would go so far as to say that this outlook on life is a factor in her strong confidence in herself; by completely dismissing any unwritten age restrictions on life, Rachel feels freer to do whatever the hell she wants. The fact that the idea of aging is even something that needs to be dealt with at this point in her life is crazy to me. Charlotte is fifteen in the movie, and during the heart-to-heart she has with her mother towards the end, Rachel tells Charlotte that she’s a year younger than Rachel was at her birth, which would only make Rachel around thirty-one, maybe thirty-two at most. So can someone tell me what the issue is? Because that’s still pretty damn young.
Regardless, I just love the way she’s so opposed to making age a hindrance. She was shocked to hear Joe call her “Ma’am” upon meeting her, which is valid, because again, SHE’S LIKE THIRTY-TWO. She tries to cut Lou off at the pass when he talks about how old he’s getting. And then, of course, she has a brilliant response to his lamentation:
Lou: Time catches up, what can you do?
Rachel: Keep moving.
Couldn’t have said it better myself. File that one under the aforementioned pearls of wisdom.
Her fashion sense is incredible.
Look, we all know Rachel can wear the shit out of polka dots. But can we talk about the fact that her looks are always on point? The first time we even see Rachel is when she’s trying to pick out an outfit for her date that night before settling on that GORGEOUS black number. It’s not just her date outfits, though. Her professional attire makes her look like a boss bitch. She rocks that oversized green sweater like nobody’s business (seriously, I need that sweater). And I wish I could pull off those pants she just casually wears on errands.
Let’s not forget the mermaid costume for the New Year’s Eve party. I want to point out that Christmas decorations are in place when Rachel and Lou talk about going to this shindig, making it safe to assume that there was not that much time between then and the party. For Mrs. Flax to pull together a costume that elaborate in such a short amount of time is amazing. It took me longer to put together the Mrs. Flax costume I wore this past Halloween, and all I really needed was a polka dot dress and a wig.
She is unapologetically independent.
I know that if it was made any other way, Mermaids would no longer have been a comedy, but especially taking things like Mad Men into consideration, it’s incredibly refreshing to watch a period piece set in the 1960s featuring a woman in control and men who seem to be okay with that (I have to say, part of me believes that if Rachel had landed on Manhattan on her map instead of Eastport, she would have ended up being good friends with Joan Holloway Harris). Rachel makes it clear that she’s always been like that; she did, after all, leave home as soon as she got her paycheck and her diploma without looking back. One of the most striking exchanges of the movie happens when she talks with Lou about the car her ex-husband eventually drove off in as he left her:
Rachel: I remember the first time I got behind the wheel of that car, and I thought, “Rachel, this is heaven.” I mean, cars mean freedom, you know? If you hate a place, you can get in your car, poof, you’re gone.
Lou: So your first love was a Buick?
Rachel: Yeah, before I met my husband. Big mistake. One of many.
Lou: Are we talking cars or men?
Rachel: I don’t know. I’ve been taken for a ride by both of them.
It showcases how important that freedom is to her. It’s why she started teaching Charlotte to drive early. And it’s why, when Charlotte ran off to Connecticut, Rachel was mostly pissed about the fact that her daughter stole her car. But it also reveals that the only person she could truly rely on for the better part of her life is herself. She doesn’t make a big deal of it; she simply says, “I coped” when she’s asked if things ever got too hard to manage. It clearly helped shape her into the self-sufficient woman you see before you but her prior life experiences, especially with men, make it so understandable that she’s wary to let her girls get attached to Lou, or make any kind of solid commitment with him; in her mind, he could take off at any time and never be heard from again (It’s okay, Rachel. He made an ocean for Kate. He’s not going anywhere).
But if that fierce independence wasn’t there, I don’t think Lou would have been as interested in Rachel as he was, or stuck around as long as he did. That independence is the foundation of her being, pushed her into a great deal of her life experiences, and fortified her personality and her views on the world. You take that away, and you don’t even have Mrs. Flax anymore.
A fabulously unconventional woman = a fabulously unconventional mother.
I already mentioned her cooking skills, but Rachel always keeps it interesting when it comes to raising her two daughters. Of course she’s not going to be a stereotypical ‘60s mom; do they give out tubes of magic toothpaste at Halloween? I didn’t think so. I’d also venture a guess that those moms don’t have the handle on compromise that Rachel has:
Rachel: Alright, you know what? I’ll make you a deal. You stop being a little bitch for let’s say, oh I don’t know, an hour or two, and I won’t knock the religion of your choice for a week.
When you get to the heart of it, Rachel’s a good mom to her kids. She’s the most vocal cheerleader at Kate’s swim meets. She doesn’t understand Charlotte’s passion for Catholicism—especially since they’re Jewish—but she lets it happen. And she’s got a quick reflex when one of her kids is being kind of a smart ass as evidenced in this gem, the last line of which my mom has used on me pretty much verbatim on multiple occasions as I was growing up:
(PS, if you’re not on board with Cher in this movie by the time she delivers that “MEEEEE?!” then I’m not quite sure what to do with you because that delivery was flawless.)
Her relationship with scotch is basically my relationship with wine.
It’s rare that I watch Mermaids without a glass of Pinot Grigio in my hand (I like to unwind from the week with a movie and some wine, sue me), so whenever I get to this part, I tend to tip my glass to the TV screen. Because I understand you, Rachel Flax. I really do.
There’s a lot underneath the surface.
I’m just going to put this out there: Cher is really good at making me cry during her movies (see also: Silkwood, Mask, Tea with Mussolini, and that part in Burlesque when she sings “You Haven’t Seen the Last of Me,” especially on bad days that make me over-identify with the lyrics). Mermaids is no different, with two scenes almost back-to-back that show Mrs. Flax with guard down and her walls decimated. Rachel recounting the story of Kate’s birth in tears, all the while holding her daughter’s hand in the hospital marks the appearance of a completely vulnerable side to her that is slightly jarring at first, yet completely inevitable. All my love to Cher for portraying this in a beautifully devastating way that makes your heart ache for Rachel.
Then there’s what is quite possibly my favorite scene in the entire movie: the argument between Rachel and Charlotte and the eventual heart-to-heart, the first one we see them have. Despite a devil-may-care attitude on the outside, it’s obvious that Rachel wants to do everything in her power to make sure her children don’t go through the same things she did. It’s obvious, here more than ever, that she’s been hurt in the past, and she wants that hurt to skip a generation. From her completely honest answers to Charlotte’s questions about her father (“I don’t have any pictures. You know, we took pictures at the wedding and they didn’t come out. I guess I should have known then.”), to navigating through Charlotte’s feelings for Joe, this is as raw as we see Rachel get, and it’s stunning.
In the end, she knows how to have fun.
I wholeheartedly believe that it’s impossible to be sad when you’re confronted with the Flax family dance party in the kitchen. Why can’t setting the table always be that exciting (or maybe it is and I’m just doing it wrong)? What I love most about this moment is the fact that it’s a period of levity after a crisis, a light at the end of the tunnel. It shows that no matter what happens, Rachel and her girls always have each other; together, they can make it through anything and come out the other side, laughing, singing, and doing The Monkey.
I also want to know how many times it took Cher and Winona Ryder to perfect that thing with their heads without crashing into each other. Because I know I’m not that coordinated, so kudos to you, ladies. Here’s the delightful scene in full, and I dare you to tell me you don’t feel like dancing once you’ve watched it:
Do you love something about Mrs. Flax that I missed? Maybe you want to voice your opinion about Mermaids? I could talk about this movie forever, so I’ll join you in the comments and we can gush about it together.