All words: Rachel Kurzius
You’ve probably seen movies about non-conforming parents trying to thaw their adult kids’ resentment after years of abandonment. These films hit upon well-worn tropes, like the evil step-parent and the epiphanic shopping montage.The inevitable rejoinder of the family turns on some implausible moment of thoughtfulness, damning characterization in favor of schmaltz. While Ricki and the Flash has a lot of similar beats as its more cheesy brethren, it stands out because it presents the people who inhabit its world as decent, flawed people trying to work through what’s most important to them. Plus, there’s live music!
Ricki (Meryl Streep) is lead singer and guitarist of Ricki and the Flash. Decades before the movie begins, she left her young family in Indiana to pursue her dream of rock and roll stardom in Los Angeles. Ricki and the Flash is the house band at the Salt Well, a local watering hole, and she takes it very seriously. But she uses her notion of “what the audience wants” as a way to create distance. This is particularly when it comes to Greg (Rick Springfield, yes, that Rick Springfield, acquitting himself quite well), lead guitarist of the Flash and her partner. Ricki picks fights with him on stage. She claims she does it because the audience loves the banter, but she’s really driving a wedge to prevent him from getting too close.
But when her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls to tell her that her daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer, Streep’s real-life daughter) needs her after getting brutally dumped, he calls for “Linda,” her real name. This sets the plot into motion in earnest, as she attempts to reconcile her dual identities of Linda and Ricki while comforting a daughter harboring years of bitterness. Gummer plays Julie as a caustic woman whose sadness leaves her without a shit to give. She has no problem spilling her family’s secrets for maximum drama, in hilariously uncomfortable fashion.
The Diablo Cody-penned script nixes the quirk for quirk’s sake that you see in her previous works, like Juno. That is a relief, because Julie’s character veers close to grating and, with one more eccentricity, would have gone over the edge. As Ricki fights with Pete’s second wife Maureen (Audra McDonald) over who has done the job of mothering, Cody makes the tension real by giving them both legitimate positions. There are no villains here, though there are fuddy-duddies galore.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Ricki’s character is her not-so-secret conservative leanings. Her son accuses her of playing the bohemian while voting for George W. Bush. Even if Ricki isn’t progressive, the script sure is. Cody examines how mothers are never forgiven for following their dreams, whereas we expect fathers to unapologetically chase their passions. Director Jonathan Demme does good work, too, often cutting away from a scene a moment after you’d expect. This lingering has the effect of building a rapport between the audience and the characters, and infuses the proceedings with nuance.
Some of the most marvelous character-building moments happen during the musical performances. The way that Streep and Springfield look (or don’t) at each other, or the way she cocks her head towards the microphone tell us more than the cadence of her raspy singing voice.
The inescapable family wedding that closes out the film shows a group of people getting closer after years of separation. Luckily, though, Ricki and the Flash doesn’t think that her mere presence at a gathering is the only needed salve. Ricki is still saying offensive things, even if they’re coming from a place of love.
Ricki and the Flash is one of those aforementioned movies about the parents reconciling with their adult children. It just happens to do the genre proud.