Mother-daughter relationships are notoriously rocky. Teenage rebellion comes head-to-head with overbearing mothers. Moms try to live their lost dreams through their girls. No matter the cause of friction, it's always there—both in real-life and in movies.
But despite the drama, the relationship between mother and daughter is a sacred one. It's a bond for life; one of the strongest forms of love. And plenty of movies have explored what it's like.
Here are our picks for the best movies about mother-daughter relationships, diving deep into the complexity of it all.
11. Mamma Mia! (2008)
Directed by Phyllida Lloyd
Starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Comedy, Musical, Romance (1h 48m)
We're kicking things off with some summery disco fun—the perfect breezy watch for, say, Mother's Day. Mamma Mia! is almost certainly the most famous jukebox musical movie around, adapted by Catherine Johnson from her own 1999 stage musical.
The plot of Mamma Mia! is based on the discography of Swedish supergroup ABBA. The 70s pop band made the likes of "Dancing Queen" and "Super Trouper," which still ring out at many wedding receptions!
As it happens, a wedding is also at the center of this movie. Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is due to be married on the lush Greek island where she was raised by her single mother Donna (Meryl Streep). Problem is, who's going to walk her down the aisle?
Sophie secretly invites all three of her potential dads, which creates a rift between her and Donna at a time when mothers and daughters are supposed to be at their closest.
10. Brave (2012)
Directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman
Starring Kelly Macdonald, Billy Connolly, Emma Thompson
Animation, Adventure, Comedy (1h 33m)
Pixar is all about teaching kids the importance of family and friendship, whether through toys, fish, or monsters. In Brave, it's medieval witchery that teaches Princess Merida to appreciate her loved ones.
Voiced by Kelly Macdonald, Merida is a feisty tomboy princess in Medieval Scotland. After evading marriage with an archery contest, Merida asks a witch to "change" her mother's mind about betrothing her for the good of the kingdom. Careful what you wish for, kids!
Merida accidentally turns her mother into a giant grizzly bear, unable to speak but still with her human consciousness. Naturally, Merida feels terrible and spends the rest of the movie trying to undo it. Luckily, the whole fiasco ultimately brings them closer together.
9. I, Tonya (2017)
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Starring Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney
Biography, Comedy, Drama (1h 59m)
Most of the mother-daughter relationships in the films on this list are frosty at first but eventually resolve to be heartwarming. In I, Tonya, we get a movie that's the opposite.
LaVona Golden was a competitive, abusive, and demanding mother who forced her daughter Tonya Harding to pursue figure skating from a young age, pushing her to the tops of her career.
Allison Janney stars as the chain-smoking mother/manager, who even joined Tonya on dates to maintain constant control. Tonya ends up marrying an abusive husband and blames it on her "white trash" mother.
Craig Gillespie directs Tonya's biopic with flair, filmed in a mockumentary style that isn't afraid to break the fourth wall. The story was derived from interviews that we can never fully trust because "everyone has their own truth," says Margot Robbie as Tonya.
Tonya's estranged mother denied most of the film's events, but her tough parenting skills are evident from old interview footage. Even though I, Tonya is about a figure skating champion, Tonya's explosive relationship with LaVona Golden permeates the story.
8. The Florida Project (2017)
Directed by Sean Baker
Starring Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Willem Dafoe
Drama (1h 51m)
Brooklynn Prince's performance in The Florida Project—at just 8 years old—is nothing short of extraordinary. Coupled with Sean Baker's visionary direction and colorful cinematography, The Florida Project is a beautiful piece of cinema.
The film is shot from the perspective of young Moonee, a little girl living on the poverty line in Florida. Moonee lives with her young and well-meaning but troubled mother Halley (played by Bria Vinaite) in the "Magic Castle"—a cheap motel painted pink.
Moonee's life of mischief on the streets is contrasted with her childlike joy and innocence. As much as Halley loves her daughter, she's somewhat neglectful and leaves most of the supervision up to the motel manager (played by Willem Dafoe).
The hardships of being a young, single, and skint parent poke through Moonee's otherwise idyllic world as she makes the most of it—and learns from her mother's reckless behavior
The movie is tender, joyous, and utterly heart-breaking. Even if it's only right that the DCF intervenes eventually, we can't help but root for Halley and Moonee to be together.
7. August: Osage County (2013)
Directed by John Wells
Starring Meryl Streep, Dermot Mulroney, Julia Roberts
Comedy, Drama (2h 1m)
Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts put in incredible performances together in John Wells' August: Osage County.
The movie takes place over a single summer and features a dysfunctional family reuniting over a tragic loss: three sisters come home for their father's funeral—alongside various other kin—and brace themselves for the hurricane that is their mother.
Violet is a feisty, bad-mouthed old woman who brutalizes members of the family as the strong-willed matriarch. She incessantly pops pills and complains, making even a simple family dinner absolute hell.
Barbara locks horns with her mother, challenging the hardships of her childhood and uncovering deep family secrets. We learn about Violet's own traumatic childhood at the hands of her cruel mother.
The pain between mother and daughter is passed down generations like a family heirloom—one that only forgiveness can break.
6. Thirteen (2003)
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke
Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Holly Hunter, Nikki Reed
Drama (1h 40m)
Drugs, sex, and crime make up many teenage experiences, which is why they're such common fears for parents. Catherine Hardwicke explores all of that in her indie drama Thirteen, following the young and impressionable Tracy Freeland (played by Evan Rachel Wood).
Tracy is a well-behaved, straight-A student living with depression. Her mother—a recovering alcoholic—doesn't seem to notice this in the midst of all she does to financially support her family.
Tracy takes it upon herself to ditch her good-girl image and walk the wild side of life. She succumbs to her new friends' habits of shoplifting and doing drugs, and her mom attempts to intervene in the ever-darkening path Tracy has chosen.
Of course, this doesn't go down well. Their relationship is fiery (to say the least) but comes from a place of loving protection. You can't help someone who isn't willing to help themself no matter how hard you try. That's an especially hard lesson for a mother to learn.
5. Mermaids (1990)
Directed by Richard Benjamin
Starring Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder
Comedy, Drama, Romance (1h 50m)
Cher is her usual wacky-sexy self in Richard Benjamin's comedy-drama Mermaids. Based on Patty Dann's 1986 novel, Mermaids stars a fresh-faced Winona Ryder as Charlotte Flax who's desperate to finish high school before getting uprooted again.
Charlotte is everything her mother is not: awkward, neurotic, prudish. While mother Rachel (played by Cher) swans around in outlandish lace costumes with men hanging off her arms, Charlotte becomes increasingly annoyed at her mother's lifestyle.
The real clincher is when they both fall for the same man. Whereas Rachel gives in easily to her desires, Charlotte fasts to purge away the sins and frets over immaculate conception.
No mother and daughter could be so different, but their continual clashes only make things worse for themselves. Mermaids is a delightfully eccentric tale, navigating the woes of adolescence where a mother figure is most crucial.
4. Freaky Friday (2003)
Directed by Mark Waters
Starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindsay Lohan, Mark Harmon
Comedy, Family, Fantasy (1h 37m)
Teen chick-flicks get a bad rap in the film world, but as The Devil Wears Prada showed us, they can be absolutely great! Freaky Friday is a classic choice for girls' night with its turbulent (and hilarious) relationship between a tightly-wound mother and her punk daughter.
Jamie Lee Curtis plays a widowed therapist who's the complete opposite of her teenage daughter Anna (played by Lindsay Lohan).
After a strange encounter with a fortune cookie, the two wake up to find that they've swapped bodies. This means they're forced to live each other's lives until they can find a way to swap back.
Experiencing everyday life—the injustices of high school and the grind of work—through the other's eyes offers them new insights. Only when Anna has experienced true empathy for her mom (and vice versa) are they able to make amends.
3. My Sister's Keeper (2009)
Directed by Nick Cassavetes
Starring Cameron Diaz, Abigail Breslin, Alec Baldwin
Drama, Family (1h 49m)
Get the tissues out because this one's a weeper. In My Sister's Keeper, Cameron Diaz gives a stunning performance as a mother torn between the lives of her two daughters.
While one daughter Kate (played by Sofia Vassilieva) suffers with leukemia, the other daughter Anna (played by Abigail Breslin) threatens to sue for medical emancipation. No one in the family is a genetic match for Kat's treatments, making Anna the "savior sister."
But Anna is only 15 and refuses this role that's been thrust upon her by her mother. Anna has no say or consent in endangering her own life through these multiple surgeries, so she hires her own lawyer. Soon, the whole family is cracking apart.
Nick Cassavetes' hard-hitting drama is built around a choice—one of the most difficult ones any mother can face. My Sister's Keeper raises tricky questions about medical ethics and morality, with the thorny bonds of mother-and-daughter at its core.
2. Lady Bird (2017)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
Comedy, Drama (1h 34m)
Lady Bird isn't a movie that's solely focused on a mother and daughter, but a mother-daughter pairing does play a key role in it.
Seventeen is a critical age for young women as they juggle the angst, confusion, and excitement of the looming adult world. For the artistic and headstrong "Lady Bird" (played by Saoirse Ronan), this new horizon comes with new challenges—like her mother.
Lady Bird's mom (played by Laurie Metcalf) is well-meaning but disproving, claiming that Lady Bird is ungrateful for what she has. Her mom is stubborn but ultimately heartbroken about her daughter's inevitable flying from the nest.
Lady Bird continues to let her mother down as she desperately searches for maturity and freedom. Director Greta Gerwig navigates the harsh terrain of their relationship intimately and honestly, resulting in high praise from critics upon release.
1. Terms of Endearment (1983)
Directed by James L. Brooks
Starring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson
Comedy, Drama (2h 12m)
Terms of Endearment is a smart and snappy classic movie directed by James L. Brooks. Playing out like a cinematic soap opera, the film is a great blend of light comedy and family drama—and it's no surprise that it was a commercial hit back in the 80s.
Here we are four decades later and Terms of Endearment still holds strong with its depiction of a turbulent relationship between a widow and her newly-wedded daughter.
Shirley MacLaine stars as Aurora Greenway, who holds her daughter just a little too close. The telephone line keeps them in touch even as their connection slowly erodes, until Emma (played by Debra Winger) moves away against her mother's will to start a family of her own.
We won't ruin the end for you, but suffice it to say that Terms of Endearment ends with an emotional punch like no other.