The title of Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s “The Good Mother” is initially a bit ironic. Marissa (Hilary Swank) is a hard-boozing mom who has inured herself to the reality of her grown sons’ lives. Michael is an opioid addict and a criminal, dabbling in drug trafficking, while her other son, Toby (Jack Reynor) exists on the other side of the law-and-order line — he’s a cop. It’s Toby who shows up to Marissa's work, interrupting a meeting at the Times Union newspaper, where she'san editor, to inform her that Michael has been murdered, shot in what may have been a drug deal gone wrong. Their acceptance of his death indicates that they have long grieved in advance.
But there’s another mother in “The Good Mother,” whom Marissa discovers at Michael’s funeral, much to her shock and sadness. It’s Paige (Olivia Cooke), Michael’s girlfriend, her hair dyed black, her belly swollen. Marissa wallops Paige across the face before she can even get the happy news out, furious at her for her role in Michael’s demise. But Paige is resilient. She bounces back, and into Marissa’s life, without bitterness. She simply wants to know what happened to her boyfriend, the father of her child, with whom she was building a future.
“The Good Mother” is the third feature film from Joris-Peyrafitte, his second with collaborator Madison Harrison (who appears briefly as Michael). The pair also co-wrote Joris-Peyrafitte’s 2016 debut, “As You Are,” an impressionistic teenage crime story set in the 1990s. “The Good Mother” is also a period piece, set in 2016 against the backdrop of the U.S. presidential election, though that choice feels incidental to the story at hand.
Joris-Peyrafitte and Harrison position “The Good Mother” as the second in a trilogy about their hometown of Albany, N.Y., following “As You Are,” and in this installment, they tackle the opioid crisis and corrupt cops. The film is a dour family drama about addiction, twisted into a mystery tale as the intrepid Paige tracks down leads about Michael’s murder, starting with his ex-best friend and fellow drug dealer Ducky (Hopper Penn).
Paige doesn’t so much as collaborate with Marissa as she drags her along for the ride every now and then. Marissa remains in a haze, prone to whiskey-soaked reminiscences and abstract wanderings down Memory Lane, which Joris-Peyrafitte brings to life with Michael’s voice mails and archival home-movie video footage. Swank, sporting an odd, if likely regionally accurate accent, conveys Marissa’s foggy state well, she just isn’t given much to do beyond that.
Cooke and her character, Paige, inject some life into the proceedings, but the central mystery feels forced, the twists implausible. The screenplay strains for topicality, stuffing too many elements at once into this sad story in a bid for relevance that never quite resonates. It only serves to detract from what should be the central focus of the film — the two mothers who have been left in the wake of destruction wrought by opioids and gun violence. “The Good Mother” wants to show us the effects of these twin epidemics on American families, but through the boozy blur of Marissa’s perspective, it doesn’t quite get the point across.
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.