Revisiting the Movie “Stepmom”

 

By Frida Oskarsdottir

For those of you who don’t know, “Stepmom” is a 1998 film starring Julia Roberts post-“Pretty Woman” and Susan Sarandon pre-Bernie Sanders. I was 11 when it came out and probably watched it ten times over the next few years. I think I was finally at the age where I could appreciate a good weepy movie and I cried Every. Single. Time. It’s been a few years since then, so I figured it was time to take a look with fresh eyes at a movie that allegedly dives headfirst into divorce, family dynamics, and death, but also has a montage of dancing using hair brushes as microphones and a LOT of horseback riding. So, here I am at the ripe old age of 30 taking another look. Won’t you watch with me?

Fun fact: if you google “Watch ‘Stepmom,’” the 1998 family drama does NOT come up first, but a lot of other “close looks” at “family relationships” do!

We open on a shimmery New York City, quiet before the dawn as a super cool radio DJ narrates that he’s about to play a great record for us. I feel like there are 15 movies from the ’80’s-’90’s that start with this exact introduction. If this were 2017, it would be a podcast.

“Under Pressure” plays and I think solemnly about Freddie Mercury and David Bowie. Miss you guys!

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Cut to a flouncy-banged Julia Roberts waking up and smiling for no reason because it’s just so great to wake up in the morning (?) before frantically realizing it’s 7:44 am and she’s LATE and rushing around the house with a scrunchie in her hair.

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She’s yelling names like “Ben!” and you think, oh my does this young blonde-ish waif, in what appears to be the largest apartment in Manhattan, have CHILDREN?! But she’s so beautiful!?

She runs into Ben’s room and is startled to find he’s not there, then heads to another bedroom on a different floor of the same apartment (in this fantasy, apartments have many floors) to find a creature of sarcasm (Anna, played by Jena Malone) going OFF about Purple Shirt Day and how Julia Roberts forgot to wash her Purple Shirt:

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In case we weren’t sure, Julia is STRESSED – “Under Pressure” keeps blaring and toast pops forcefully out of the toaster – EGAD – Ben is located and Julia wrestles him to the ground in attempt to dress him, Anna keeps sulking, and then…

THE VIRGIN MOMMY APPEARS:

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Susan Sarandon, just a few years after being one saucy half of Thelma and Louise, is straight up wearing high-waisted khakis and a canary yellow cardigan DRAPED OVER HER SHOULDERS; GOOD GOD, MAN.

She could not be cooler or calmer and Julia Roberts is a literal Cathy comic right now, which I kind of find hard to believe given her general demeanor. Can you frazzle Julia Roberts? Anyway, now the audience knows that, thank god, Julia has never given birth because, I mean, look at her. Also we learn that Julia Roberts’ name is Isabel because Susan goes “I’ll take it from here, Isabel” and Julia is all “I’m sure you will, Jackie.” A-plus storytelling, really.

P.S. Jackie remembered Purple Shirt Day, she is really out-moming herself

Jackie takes the kids to school in her mommy SUV and manages to mock Isabel in front of her children while also negging Anna when she does the same thing – so, in order to be a good mom you have to be a master manipulator? Noted.

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Cut to Isabel on set of a fast-paced, New York City photoshoot complete with 80 kinds of fruit trays, bright lights, and not an autumn hue in sight – this is how we know she is a Childless Woman with a Real Job, and that job is being the most high-powered photographer of all time. She takes a single polaroid and then DEMANDS THE DIGITAL CAMERA RIGHT NOW. She has a genius idea of shooting the models in a non-traditional way and then says “that’s a wrap everybody” after roughly 2 minutes.

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Uh oh, but Isabel is in hot water because she was late and didn’t shoot very long and her boss is nervous in front of…the investors? The board? There are like 30 People in Suits milling about who seem to be really interested in this single photo shoot. This tension proves to us that in order to be successful you must first and foremost have no children, because children make you late. Thank god this has only happened to Isabel once and her boss is willing to look the other way – I’m sure it won’t happen again or become a central theme of the movie.  

At one point, Isabel makes a joke about her boss hiring her even though she wouldn’t sleep with him but LOL dude is literally wearing an homage to Elton John, but I guess this is the 90’s.

Isabel runs to edit her genius photos on the first Macintosh computer invented:

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Finally, her brilliant idea is presented to the clients. First, the men say they like it and then the only woman jumps on board and agrees in a super progressive, very cool way. Cue Julia Roberts’ Million Watt Smile!

Later at a parent teacher conference we meet DAD played by Ed Harris, whose beeper goes off immediately but he’s all “I won’t get that” and you can see in Jackie’s eyes that no sir this is not the first time that beeper has gone off. A pattern emerges wherein the audience realizes that if you have a job (re: Dad and Isabel) you do not get to love your children or any children but you do get to roll in the dough and buy clothes for yourself that aren’t yellow, unlike Jackie.

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The reason Dad and Jackie are meeting with the school is that little Anna has been spreading QUITE the rumor that her parents are getting remarried and moving to Switzerland (the scamp!). But what could she be acting out about?

Don’t worry, as becomes apparent throughout the rest of the movie there is literally nothing this family can’t handle with a heart-to-heart chat! All conversations take place in their mansion in a faraway land called “Outside the City,” in a kitchen designed by Beatrix Potter. After her mom looks at her for approximately one second in the eyes, Anna realizes the error of her ways and basically self-therapists herself: “I guess if I just said it out loud I thought it might come true.” How old is this freak supposed to be again? The most well-adjusted 12-year-old of all time.

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Anna comes to this conclusion while working on her watercolors (as 12-year-olds do) as her brother reaches Peak Precociousness practicing his magic routine – quick question, have the creators of this film ever seen a family?

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No, no they haven’t. This child is a Manic Pixie Dream Boy.

Later in a different, sleek, city-slicker kitchen, Dad and Isabel have some sexy kissing time and there’s a super funny joke about Isabel not liking to cook because duh she’s a HIGH POWERED CAREER WOMAN GOD DAMNIT how can she cook with all the photos that need taking?!

Dad ruins sexy time by bringing up the kids – yawn – and Isabel gets annoyed he doesn’t trust her. This is a good time to point out that to date Isabel’s crimes against humanity are:

  • Waking up late
  • Not washing the Purple Shirt

As their discussion gets more heated the phone keeps ringing but the person calling is hanging up. Finally Isabel answers, “What is your problem asshole?” and the caller turns out to be Anna, who in five minutes went from mature watercolor angel to bratty stepchild and goes, “YOU ARE MY PROBLEM.” ZING. Then Isabel goes “Call your daughter,” and they reconcile and she goes “Lol don’t fight with me when I’m hungry,” even though she totally just called his kid an asshole?? Isn’t that kind of a big deal??

Sidebar: I still wish I owned basically everything Julia Roberts wears in this movie – it is ’90’s gold. These white baggy pants, have I died and gone to Express heaven?

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So because everyone in this family hates Isabel so much she gets the kids a puppy. Again, because she dares to exist and date their father THREE YEARS after a divorce, she has to prove her worthiness with a golden retriever. Anna is less than impressed and tells Isabel she smells like a dog; very cool. Obviously, that bandana is going in my look book.

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This movie seems to be a series of picking up the kids and dropping them off. The next morning, Anna CAN’T EVEN because she walked in on Isabel and Dad getting it on in the shower (unpictured, stupid PG-13 rating). When Isabel explains to Jackie, she shames her for not having a Harrison family conversation about it (Harrisonation) and Isabel gets to drop the one f-bomb of the movie:

“I’m not June-fucking-Cleaver”

No you aren’t Isabel, this blazer/shirt combo make that crystal clear:

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Oh, did you want to know what Jackie is wearing? NO PROB:

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Poor Susan Sarandon, we all know what she’s got going on underneath all that squash coloring.

Later, Jackie is toiling over Anna’s custom-made Halloween costume when Anna walks in and says “A hippie? That’s what I wanted to be last month.” As in, “Mom, you created this from me for scratch but I’m changing my mind on a whim” and Jackie JUST GOES WITH IT AND LAUGHS ALONG AS ANNA TELLS HER SHE WANTS TO BE ELVIS HA HA HA YES DARLING I WILL NOW MAKE YOU AN ELVIS COSTUME?!??!?!?! I don’t know if anyone else reading this has a mom but if I had told my mother after she sewed me a couture Halloween costume that I wanted to be something else I wouldn’t have fingers to keep writing this with. Jackie. Get a grip.

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Then she has a sex talk with her (re: steamy shower scene that the audience was deprived of) and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a 12-year-old enjoy talking about sex with her mom so much?? She like begs her to describe it and then says she likes talking to her mom about “stuff”??? WHAT IS HAPPENING?? There is such a thing as TOO well-adjusted.

Next scene, Isabel is shooting another masterpiece in Central Park. Naturally the kids are there because for some reason even though everyone thinks Isabel is completely inept at handling children THEY’RE ALWAYS ALONE WITH HER?!

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Because the “light is so good” and other photography reasons, she loses track of the kids and Manic Pixie Boy plus puppy vanish. But it’s fine because in this movie children and puppies alike are instantly found by helpful police officers.

While Jackie yells at Dad about Isabel, Isabel interrupts and goes,“Don’t take this out on him.” FAT CHANCE LADY. I’m pretty sure nobody in this movie plans on blaming anyone but you for anything. “Is it about to rain?? Fucking Isabel.”

Later, Jackie explains again why the family hates Isabel so much (re: how dare she lose my precious baby), this time perched atop a horse in another unbeatable sweater khaki look.

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Manic Pixie Ben asks if Isabel makes a lot of money at her job, and Jackie answers “People like Isabel who only think about themselves often do make a great deal of money.” DAMN! Then Pixie goes, “Mommy if you want me to hate her I will.” BOOM GOES THE DYNAMITE. JACKIE, YOU ARE PLAYING A DANGEROUS GAME.

She realizes she may be mommy-ing too hard, so when Dad asks her to go easy on Isabel and not call the lawyers she says, “I’m going to give you one last chance,” a line people say all the time outside of movies. 

Back in the Manhattan photo-loft, everyone is making art and wearing black. Isabel and her Elton John boss are fawning over her photos while listening to pop music and discussing cosmopolitan things with this going on in the background, because photography:

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The phone rings and turns out Perfect Mom forgot to pick up the kids I mean who can you trust in this movie? To her boss’s dismay, Isabel rushes out because she cares about these kids more than literally anything. I’m beginning to think she’s only going out with Dad to get to hang out with the kids? This movie should be called “Who Loves The Kids Most: Not Dad.” Anyway, Isabel goes to pick them up and pretends like SHE’S the one who forgot the kids since she doesn’t want them to be mad at mom, what a damn hero.

But SURPRISE! Out of nowhere JACKIE SHOWS UP, barely glances at Isabel, doesn’t thank her, and takes her precious angels home to roost. Later, Jackie scoffs when Isabel asks her if she can take Anna to a Pearl Jam concert. If you’re keeping track, now we’re on Isabel’s side.

BUT NOT FOR LONG because like in any movie where our sympathy for the characters starts to wane, enter Cancer:

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So Jackie invites Dad to dinner to tell him she’s sick but before she does he says HE has news (oh, Dad, you rascal) and that he’s going to ask for Isabel’s hand in marriage. Wait, they weren’t married yet? Why the hell is she raising his children? Jackie is all “her?” and he’s like “she’s special” and Jackie hits him with this face:

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Jackie is such a babe in this scene, her eyes are all cancer-crying-shiny. Anyway, then she doesn’t tell him. Asking someone to dinner specifically to tell them something and then saying “Oh, it was nothing” is something that happens explicitly in movies. This has never happened in real life. What do you do for the rest of the meal?

Cue Engagement scene: Dad is really ahead of the times with this elaborate but tasteful proposal (no flashmob) wherein he tricks Isabel with this:

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But then makes a metaphor about strings and relationships and I wasn’t really listening and then BLAM:

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Isabel is IN. TO. IT.

Anna, not so much:

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She’s child acting her little heart out when she hears the news, very rage-ful, very teary. However, after another perfect five-minute family discussion she decides she’s cool with it because otherwise everyone will be sad. Manic Pixie Son is cool with it, too. These kids are TOO MATURE. You know the trope of casting 30-year-olds to play teenagers in “Beverly Hills 90210” and “Saved by the Bell”? This is exactly the opposite of that.

Then Isabel and Anna have a small bonding moment because Anna is having a hard time with her watercolors (normal 12-year-old problems) and everything seems to be wrapping up nicely – EXCEPT that they bond over drawing more realistic trees but do these look like realistic trees to you??

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Also, Isabel said she learned the technique after taking “an art class when she was at N.Y.U.,” Uh…ok Isabel, I guess you just happened to learn that one specific tree-realifying method. REAL CONVENIENT. Also these are her pants:

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*Kisses fingers* Perfection.

During a classic car sing-a-long (I’m telling you 96% of this movie takes place in a car), Anna puts on some of Isabel’s lipstick. When she gets home, Jackie goes “Well, you don’t ordinarily see that color on in the afternoon except for on working girls!” DUDE do you have a professional joke writer? This is fire. Isabel gives her this look, and this hat:

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THEN JACKIE STRAIGHT UP EVIL SURPRISES ANNA WITH PEARL JAM TICKETS LIKE IT WAS HER IDEA. MOM?!

But since this movie can’t make up its mind and insists on making its characters complex we’re BACK TO SYMPATHIZING with Jackie as she starts her chemo treatment. She gets weepy on the phone at the hospital with Pixie Magician and suddenly, it’s kind of dusty in here. Anyway, next scene.

Later Pixie Ben is injured after falling off the jungle gym and Isabel is hanging with him at the hospital, and he says “Will you sing to me? My mommy always sings to me when I’m hurt,” which is really too cute, but then Isabel straight up HAS A MOMENT with this little kid staring him in the eyes singing Emmy Lou Harris. He just scraped his leg, you don’t have to get so intimate.

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But really:

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No woman has ever loved children this much. I don’t think this is what Ben bargained for when he asked for a song.

Jackie walks in and this is where the movie takes a turn from bitchy to sad – I’m not sure how much longer I can keep this charade up of mocking it. 

Moving on, Sharon Stone smoking a doobie in her leaf-strewn garden wearing a beret is everything I want to be. Also, yes, I typed Sharon Stone and I don’t even care.

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She deserves to smoke some pot and enjoy her garden in her brown getup. Because she has cancer, sure, but also because she has not one friend outside of her bi-polar kids, ex-husband, and his fiancé? Thing are tough for Jackie.

Pixie is home from his friend Tucker’s birthday party and runs out of the car wearing a problematic Native American headdress. Tucker’s mom, I’m putting you on blast!

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Isabel does some espionage looking through Jackie’s mail and figures out she’s sick. This is in all sincerity some excellent acting between two gifted ladies and makes me miss when actors acted. Their outerwear is also, as always, on point.

Now that the cat’s out of the bag it’s time for, you guessed it, another Harrison Family Meeting. When they tell the kids that Mom has cancer Anna’s reaction is to scream “I COULD NEVER BELIEVE YOU AGAIN,” and “MOM’S DYING ISABEL IS OUR MOTHER NOW,” but then 6-8 minutes later this is them:

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Now it’s Thanksgiving! Because it’s 1998 we see more problematic Native American costumes and a familiar Pilgrim narrative, and because I am an insane person, I recognized a cameo of Susan Sarandon’s daughter in this scene. For those of you watching at home see if you can spot her! It’s fine, I’m seeking help for my celebrity obsession, moving on. 

Suddenly Isabel and Jackie are best buds? They’re gossiping about Anna’s torrid affair with THIS GUY:

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Honestly, you should watch this movie just for this scene and the genuinely hilarious description of what it’s like to “go out” with someone in the 6th grade. Anyway, Blonde Face BROKE UP with Anna in front of everyone after two weeks of going out and she is humiliated. 

Later, she asks her mom for advice and she tells her to take the high road and ignore him. Solid Mom tips from a solid Mom in a solid sweater:

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So at this point, if the question was am I going to cry even though this movie is pretty ridiculous – like, where is Dad? – the answer is yes. Because it snows and Jackie gets introspective and takes Anna horseback riding in the snow in the middle of the night in a perfect Cool Yuppie Mom move. I wept. I’m also going to skip over a lot of the cute sweet stuff because my shriveled heart can’t handle it. If you watch, you’ll know. 

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Speaking of weeping, Isabel doesn’t cry when her boss FIRES HER for dating a guy with kids, basically. She does wear this hat though. 

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Anyway, she loses her job and that is the last we hear about it for the entirety of the movie. Like, her career is gone so now her transformation into Stepmom is almost complete? Great!

So turns out Jackie’s advice didn’t quite work out because Anna is crying because Blonde Face called her “Frosty the Snow Bitch.” Isabel offers to help and Anna gets in one last jab before their bond is solidified. Whew, good because I think the movie is ending soon so we better wrap up all these loose ends and decide who likes who now. 

So Isabel of Genius Ideas comes up with a Genius Revenge Idea for Blonde Face, namely teaching her a bunch of cruel things to say to him and then hiring a male model to meet Anna out in front of school and pretend to be her boyfriend. I’ll admit I still think this is pretty bad ass, although like many things it’s now completely infeasible since the Internet exists.

Other thoughts I have about this whole scenario now that I’m an adult include how young Anna is, like, Jesus Isabel chill out you’re making her say the words LIMP DICK! This is one of those cool things in theory but IRL if your stepmom was like “lol ‘I’m gonna hire a male model to pretend to be your boyfriend,” you’d be like “uhhh Linda lay off the Bailey’s, ha ha where’s Dad?”

So, the hiring a male model and shaming your ex scene unfolds perfectly. Anna, flanked by her girl squad, delivers the perfect monologue with just enough swearing to be edgy (she says ass).

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Blonde face reacts accordingly:

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This kid has the worst friends ever – his ex-girlfriend humiliates him and they just laugh and laugh. Actually, I guess that’s par for the course in middle school. OK, well done.

Oh, did you want to know what 1998 deemed the hottest fantasy dude to play the role of hired hunky teen? Wonder no more!

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OF COURSE this Twilight extra is wearing a beige turtleneck. Clean up on aisle 4, right ladies?? Anyway, Anna killed it. All is well. Or is it?

Not in this movie! Jackie is MAD because Isabel taught her angel not to take the high road. There are words exchanged, meaning a heated argument which basically boils down to who really loves Anna most. But five minutes later they make up with a real love fest at the neighborhood restaurant and I fully admit my face looked a lot like theirs during this scene.

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Minus the pillowy lips and perfect skin, obviously. They’re just SUCH GOOD ACTRESSES and I know this entire live-blogging experience has been an exercise in irony but I am being completely serious. Also why are these two characters having this meaningful conversation about the future of the children after Jackie’s death without the other half of the kids’ biological parent? WHERE IS DAD?! He showed up at one point a few scenes ago to put up a Christmas tree for Jackie and gives her a shiny-eyed stare and I guess that’s it? Meanwhile Isabel is literally POURING HER SOUL OUT TO HER and they aren’t even MARRIED YET. If you’re keeping track: women feel things, men put up Christmas trees.

If you’ve seen “Stepmom” as many times as I have then you probably remember the last few scenes: they are meant to gut your insides and they succeed. I kept putting off watching the ending of the movie because I knew it would get me good, I mean look at these:

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Jackie sticks around on planet Earth for a final family picture and Isabel sits next to her wearing what is the first primary color of her entire life. She is: Stepmom.

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Fin.