Embarrassing yourself is all the rage these days. It shows you have self-image to spare. Say, if you don’t mind having spinach between your teeth on a first date. Female characters in movies and pop music have made even the most style-conscious, contemporary woman confess that she, too, can be oh so hapless, sometimes.
"I'm much more interested in alternative families. It was always a point of our stories to show problems being solved in cooperation, a cooperation that does not necessarily involve a father, mother and children." Director Lotte Svendsen
Max’ mom is the mother of all embarrassing mothers in director Lotte Svendsen’s aptly titled "Max Embarrassing". Try as he might to be normal and with it, Max is always being tripped up by his ultrahovering, geeky mom, played by Mette Horn. Of course, she means well and yes, she’s a severe strain on his fragile teenage mind.
“The embarrassment we describe has to do with certain values and with letting yourself be open – with embarrassing things like solidarity, compassion and empathy, the kind of progressive values that have been hidden away for some time now,” says Mette Horn, who plays Max’ mom.
As Svendsen explains, the creators devised Max’ mom as a heroine, while the kids in the film find her “max” embarrassing. She is a nerdy historian and academic, her intellectual engagement and maternal vigilance always more powerful than such mundane things as cleaning the house and taking out the trash. But in fact, Max’ mom turns out to be the one to find the solutions to Max’ conflicts with his schoolmates and to help him get the girl, Ophelia, he has a crush on. As the director puts it, the mother is a caricature, but she’s a woman with rock-solid, old-school values.
A mother from the creative classes with correct progressive values, why is she a bad mother?
“All self-righteousness stinks. To kids that age, you can’t do anything right. It’s a law of nature. I might have a really good talk with my 12-year-old son, and then he’ll twist it around, so we end up having a fight. That’s what we have each other for now. I can be there for him and keep my foot out of my mouth, but that’s about all I’m good for,” Horn says, then adds, “On the other hand, that’s still a pretty important task, to be around for him to dress me down.”
Of course, there’s a double standard: Max’ mom doesn’t want him to wear brand-name clothes, while she dresses up for a meeting with her publisher. And, she can’t resolve a conflict with her friend but tries to resolve all of Max’ conflicts with his friends. Svendsen says, “I have a really hard time telling my children not to lie, when in fact I lie in certain situations, when I think it’s the best thing to do. hether to fib or not is a big dilemma for Max.”
Horn says, “The age around ten to twelve is an exciting place, where children really start questioning their identity and the world at large – questions you can’t answer, even as a grown up.Still, you have to have the courage to be an adult, because kids that age don’t need to be friends with their mother. You have to say, ‘That’s how I see it, at this moment.’ You may not be right. But later, when we have reached the other shore, when children and parents begin to want to have something to do with each other again, you can confess that you were every bit as unsure as they were.”
A PROPITIOUS PLACE
“I had the world’s sweetest dad. He never punished me or yelled at me. He set no boundaries, and in puberty, I still made him out to be an asshole,” Svendsen says.
As she sees it, the film is also an attempt to recreate a state and a place that meant a lot to her when she was a child and that she, as an adult, has learned was a propitious place to be.
“I found myself constantly lost in an irrational world,” Svendsen says. “I grew up with a single parent, a nerdy high-school teacher dad with lots of books and dust, never enough money and plenty of ‘just stay home from school today and we’ll read to each other some more’. Doing anything on my terms was completely out of the question, like shopping for clothes for me or making sure I got badminton lessons, if that’s what I wanted to do. Our adult-child relationship was never defined.”
The film is full of break-ups and divorces. Ophelia’s father, who’s in prison, is not in touch with his daughter. Max’ mom and dad are divorced.
Svendsen and Horn are both divorced, they tell me. It was Horn who insisted on including a particular dialogue exchange in the film. When the kids in Max’ class talk about how they are going to spend Christmas, they expose the bleak reality for joint-custody kids: “If Christmas falls on an odd week, I’ll be with my mother” and “We’re still waiting for a Superior Court ruling”.
“My parents were divorced, and I always thought Christmas was one long insult, because it meant celebrating an institution that didn’t really exist anymore,” Horn says. “It hurt. The grown ups were manically trying to cover everything up, and everyone was in thrall to some sort of Disney image no one could live up to. I was always sitting there with eyes like tiny slits when other kids talked about what they did for Christmas: ‘Okay, so you went for a walk in the woods, and then uncle Freddy showed up like he always does, and after 2 p.m. the fun really begins and you play games … hmm, good for you …’ ”
Svendsen leans forward in her chair: “I’m much more interested in alternative families. It was always a point of our stories to show problems being solved in cooperation, a cooperation that does not necessarily involve a father, mother and children. One of the best things I do with my kids is spend time with our alternative family. There’s a spontaneity in breaking the daily routine. I’ve been getting back in touch with some of my old squatter friends, who are also divorced, and we’ve been returning to some of the old communal values, like taking turns cooking big dinners for everybody.”
Still, Horn doesn’t buy the alternative family as a substitute: “There’s no escaping it that the constellation children most profoundly want to be in is the one with the two people who love them more than anything else in the world. It’s as simple as that. You can’t intellectualise that away or cover it up with jokes or romanticism.”
Svendsen disagrees. “I didn’t grow up in a nuclear foursome of mother, father and two children. Happiness for me was when the doorbell rang and you got to see who was coming to share the evening with us. I’ve passed that on to my two boys, who are three and five. When a bike messenger stops by with flowers for me, they clamour to know if he’s going to stay for dinner.”
"Max Embarrassing" is about some values being better than others and how, as an adult, you have to ask yourself what values you want to impart to your kids – even if you’re torn by doubt. As Svendsen puts it, “People have asked me if I wasn’t sick of the media branding me as a left-wing feminist. But I’m proud of it!”