Entertainment

Julia Roberts driving in a Jeep, handing lipstick to her stepdaughter

1998’s ‘Stepmom’ Is A Nearly Perfect Movie

When I was 12 I thought the way to be a woman was to wear all black and be a stepmom like Julia Roberts, and here I am.

It’s funny, when you tell people there is a Stepmom’s day, they look at you like you’re making it up, like you’re delusional — even though people are more than happy to commemorate National Hot Dog Day on Instagram. But yes, since July 2000, when a 9-year-old girl in Pennsylvania wrote to her representative to make it official, Stepmother’s Day has been observed the Sunday after Mother’s Day. When I saw Naja Hall, founder of Blended and Black, post about Stepmother’s Day back in 2018, I’d had a couple of crappy and awkward Mother’s Days by then. People didn’t know if they should acknowledge me or not. I didn’t know either.

Now, I celebrate the Sunday after Mother’s Day, with my stepdaughter, Louise, and it takes the pressure off of her from having to call me on Mother’s Day. On Mother’s day now, I receive some beautiful texts from friends, and I focus on my own mom, while Louise does something with hers. Then, on Stepmom’s day, we do our own thing.

So this year when Louise asked what I wanted to do for "stepmommy’s day," as she calls it, I said I wanted to revisit a classic. I've been reliving the ‘90s through her, cherishing showing my 10-year-old stepdaughter to iconic singer-songwriters like Jewel and Alanis Morrisette. After I blasted them, she turned to me and said, “‘90s music is really cool.” ‘90s movies are also cool and stepmothers were a recurring theme. There was 1991's My Girl, with Jamie Lee Curtis telling Veda you can never have too much blue eyeshadow, and 1994's Corrina, Corrina, with Whoopi Goldberg singing “Pennies From Heaven” in the pool with 6-year-old Tina Majorino. But those characters both became stepparents through death, not divorce. There is only one Stepmom, starring Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon, and it came out in 1998, when I was 12 years old and an excellent target.

The movie came up last weekend at a small birthday party, where three out of seven of us were stepparents. “Stepmom is a perfect movie and should have won the Academy Award that year,” declared one of my friends, Ariana, an actress and also a stepparent.

I said I loved the movie but noted that people complained how it pitted two women against each other, and pointed out that it took one of them dying for the biological mom and stepmom to actually respect and get along with each other. But still, yes. Stepmom is a perfect movie and should have won the Academy Award.

Though some of the best memories of my life are dancing in the living room with my mom as a kid, singing and sharing lipstick with a stepmom who comes into your life uninvited moves me more. It’s unexpected. Touching. You have to work for it.

There are two scenes in Stepmom that hit my heart: the first one is when Julia Roberts (the stepmom) is driving the kids in her Jeep from New York City on transition day to their mom’s, upstate. Julia Roberts, a chic photographer, is in all black and a bucket hat, pulls out a lipstick. The East coast foliage is peaking. Her stepdaughter side-eyes her applying lipstick, and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” begins playing either on the radio or the CD player. Julia wordlessly passes the lipstick to her stepdaughter who smiles, flips the car mirror down and applies it while singing along with the song. Julia joins in singing. In the backseat, the little brother, observantly eyes what’s happening — his sister putting on lipstick, the bonding and subtle moment. The three of them begin belting the song together. It’s one of the only moments in the film you see the three of them alone and enjoying each other.

The song reappears later in the movie after Susan Sarandon announces to the family she has cancer. She and her kids are in their pajama sets and are using cordless phones and hairbrushes as microphones. They dance around the house and it is charming as hell, but I’m partial to the stepmom Jeep scene (I also can't help but note that the singing scene with the stepmom has 236,327 views on YouTube, compared to the singing scene with bio mom, which has 1.7 million.).

Though some of the best memories of my life are dancing in the living room with my mom as a kid, singing and sharing lipstick with a stepmom who comes into your life uninvited moves me more. It’s unexpected. Touching. You have to work for it. It’s hard-won. But in “Stepmom” we're able to have empathy for each character once we know more about them, from their own perspective, by the end.

It was Louise who once told me there aren’t only two sides to every story, there are many more.

We forget how influential those 90s movies were on us until we rewatch them. Example: I thought the way to be a woman was to wear all black and be a stepmom like Julia Roberts, and here I am. It was Louise who once told me there aren’t only two sides to every story, there are many more. She has two sets of parents, four perspectives, plus her own perspective, plus her stepsister’s perspective and her step-sister's biological mom’s perspective. You do the math.