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Film / Mermaids

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Mom Is Many Things. . .Normal Isn't One of Them.note 
"Charlotte, I know you're planning a celibate life, but with half my chromosomes, I think that might be tough."
Rachel Flax

Mermaids is a 1990 dramedy directed by Richard Benjamin, starring Cher, Bob Hoskins, Winona Ryder (who was nominated for a Golden Globe), and Christina Ricci (in her first film role). It is based on the 1986 novel of the same name by Patty Dann.

In the early 1960s, Rachel Flax (Cher) is what used to be called a "loose woman". She's also the mother of Charlotte (Ryder) and Kate (Ricci), who are forced to move from town to town to escape their mother's failed relationships. Defiantly sexy and nonmaternal, Mrs. Flax is a constant source of embarassment to the older Charlotte, who turns to prudish dress and behavior in reaction to her mother's reputation. Charlotte fantasizes about being a nun, and is thrilled when their move to Massachusetts puts them a stone's throw away from an actual convent. Yet proving to be even more thrilling is the handsome handyman Joe (Michael Schoeffling), who works for the nuns. Charlotte is terrified that her attraction to him means she'll turn out just like her mother.

Meanwhile, her mother is having some problems of her own. The town's genial shoe salesman, Lou Landsky (Hoskins), seems good for a few laughs. Unfortunately, he digs his heels in and wants a real relationship with Rachel, and doesn't go away no matter how badly she behaves.

Interestingly, this movie was 110 minutes long and made $110 million, meaning that each minute of the film was worth exactly one million dollars.

Not to be confused with Mermaids 2003.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accomplice by Inaction: The thought of your youngest child almost drowning and the other child you trusted doing something reckless instead when they were supposed to be watching their youngest sibling. Rachel calls Charlotte out on this.
  • Age-Gap Romance: 15-year-old Charlotte develops a huge crush on 26-year-old handyman and bus driver Joe, who reciprocates. She does feel guilty about her feelings for him early on, though it seems to be more about believing lustful thoughts are sinful (she's obsessed with Catholicism) and fearing she'll turn out like her mother than just the eleven-year age difference. They eventually sleep together. No one explicitly mentions the age gap being an issue despite Charlotte being under the age of consent in Massachusetts (it's set in the 1960s) although Rachel is not happy when she finds out and they don't work out as a couple in the long term and Joe ends up moving away, with the scandal of the age gap and him technically being guilty of statutory rape possibly being a factor.
  • Age Lift: Charlotte was 14 in the novel, but is 15 in the film. Likewise, Joe is 29 in the novel and 26 in the film. This was possibly done to lessen the age gap seeing as they have a romantic relationship, although the age gap in the movie still raises eyebrows.
  • All Women Are Lustful: Mrs. Flax who dates many men and relocates after the romance is over, Charlotte who struggles with impure thoughts towards her love Joe Poretti and Charlotte's friend Mary O'Brien who brags about giving oral sex to her date by the train tracks.
  • All Women Love Shoes: Rachel believes this:
    Charlotte: I don't want any.
    Rachel: Don't be ridiculous, Charlotte. Every woman wants new shoes.
  • Alliterative Name: Lou Landsky qualifies.
  • Anger Born of Worry: Happens twice. First when Charlotte runs away, then when Kate almost drowns on Charlotte's watch. Rachel chews Charlotte out both times, more so the second time.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: After the fight between her and Charlotte.
    Rachel: If you hate living my life so much, why are you trying your damnedest to make the same mistakes?
  • Armor-Piercing Response: Charlotte gives one to her mother during a fight, followed by her mother slapping her.
    Rachel: Great story! What's your major, town tramp?!
    Charlotte: No, Mom, the town already has one!
  • The Atoner: Rumor runs through the women in the town of Massachusetts that Joe Peretti took up the job as the bell ringer at the nuns convent to make up for his sin of getting his then-girlfriend pregnant. The rumor turns out to be false.
  • Auto Erotica: Early in the film, we see a shot of Mrs. Flax and her boss in a car that's rocking while audible moans can be heard. We then see that they were just passionately making out, and it's likely that had Mrs. Flax not stopped, sex would've occurred.
  • Bathroom Stall of Angst: Charlotte hides in one during her first day at a new high school to deal with moving and having to start her life all over again.
  • Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: Charlotte hides herself in a bathroom stall while overhearing her female classmates discuss how far they have gone with a boy.
  • Big "NO!":
    • Charlotte, when her mother takes a cookie cutter and cuts her sandwiches into star shapes.
    • Charlotte also screams this during a fight with her mother when Mrs. Flax tells her to start packing for their next move.
  • Blatant Lies: Charlotte lies about Kate being scared of the water just to go on a boat ride alone with Joe.
  • Became Their Own Antithesis: Despite hating her mother and resenting her lifestyle, Charlotte becomes a lot like her mother Rachel after losing her virginity to Joe and gaining a reputation in town.
  • Be a Whore to Get Your Man: After seeing Rachel kiss Joe on New Year's eve, Charlotte gets drunk and dresses up in Rachel's clothes and makeup, feeling that this would help her look more appealing to Joe.
  • Betty and Veronica: Charlotte (the Betty) and her mother Rachel (the Veronica) over Joe (the Archie).
  • Big Eater: After Charlotte collapses due to malnutrition from fasting so many days, Rachel brings her two plates of cake and cookies.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The nuns who manage to save Kate from drowning.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Lou and Rachel's relationship continues, Joe moves away to California but keeps in touch with Charlotte via postcards, Kate recovers from her near-drowning but is now partially deaf, Charlotte gains a reputation at her high school due to her sexual encounter with Joe and Charlotte and her mother Rachel have a better understanding of one another as mother and daughter (not just friends) and the films ends as Charlotte, Rachel and Kate fix dinner together at the table which is something they've never done before.
  • Bitch Slap: Rachel gives one to her daughter Charlotte during a fight.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: Mrs. Flax fixes dinner and dessert for her daughters before her date with her boss. Kate is perplexed by the meal.
    Kate: What is this?
    Rachel: Cheese ball pick-me-ups, accompanied by miniature franks and for dessert, marshmallow kebabs.
    Charlotte: (narrating) A word about Mrs. Flax and food: the word is Hors d'oeuvres. Fun finger foods is her main source of work and that's all the woman cooks. And "anything more", she says, "is too big a commitment."
  • Business Trip Adultery: At the beginning of the film, Rachel has a passionate fling with her boss only to learn he is married when he breaks up with her and won't take her on his business trip because he's taking his wife. This prompts her to pack up and move again as Charlotte narrates.
    Rachel (breathing heavily) Wait a minute, wait a minute. So you're telling me, that not only am I not going with you on this business trip, you're taking another woman?
    Rachel's boss: (breathing heavily) Honey, she's not just some other woman. She's my wife.
  • But Now I Must Go: Joe leaves town and bids goodbye with Charlotte after everything that's happened.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': Charlotte's first time having sex happens at the same time that Kate almost drowns.
  • Can't Spit It Out: Charlotte, many times. First she finds herself too nervous to ask a nun what color her bra was and if the woman had pure thoughts every second of the day. Then, being unable to tell her mother that she thinks she's pregnant (from just a kiss), Charlotte steals her mother's car and runs away.
  • Censor Suds: Seen in a bath scene with Mrs. Flax near the start of the film, with a clump of suds obscuring her breasts.
  • Children Raise You: Charlotte feels she's this when dealing with her mother Mrs. Flax.
    Charlotte: Sometimes, I feel like you're the child and I'm the grown-up. I can't ever imagine being inside you. I can't imagine being anywhere you'd let me hang around for nine straight months.
  • Clingy Jealous Girl: Rachel's new boss's fiancee' glares at Rachel while she is busy typewriting because Rachel is the pretty new secretary.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Charlotte.
  • Commitment Issues: Rachel is very uncomfortable and hesitant to let Lou be a father figure to her girls and be "a normal family" with him. This strains their relationship.
  • Disappeared Dad:
  • Distinction Without a Difference: While telling Charlotte about how running away doesn't solve problems, Rachel notices the hypocrisy and before Charlotte can call her out on it, Rachel says that she doesn't run away, she moves on.
  • Don't Do Anything I Wouldn't Do: Rachel says this to Charlotte before she leaves the house to go fishing with Joe. Then Rachel sarcastically follows it up with "...or do anything I would".
  • Everybody Has Standards: After Charlotte runs away, Rachel complains to Lou that Charlotte is mad at her and that is okay, Charlotte is just blowing off steam and that is okay but taking her car is not okay.
  • The Film of the Book: As noted, this movie is based on a novel.
  • First-Person Smartass: Charlotte, serving as the film narrator.
  • Foreshadowing: Joe Peretti having to relocate due to the rumored scandal of a wedlock teen pregnancy with his then-girlfriend. Once the town starts talking about his taking 15-year-old Charlotte's virginity, he has to relocate again.
  • Freudian Excuse: The conflict between Mrs. Flax and Charlotte is a driving force of the story.
  • Give Me a Sign: Tired of relocating to another state because of her mother, Charlotte prays frequently to God asking for a sign. She gets two: falling in love with the new caretaker Joe at first sight and that she and her family happen to live right next to a convent with nuns.
  • Glamorous Single Mother: Mrs. Flax. Somewhat justified in that Charlotte's 15 and Kate's somewhere between 7 and 10, though Rachel is shown to be a pretty bad parent who treats her daughters more like friends than children. This comes back to bite her when Charlotte develops a crush on Joe and doesn't know how to handle it.
  • Gossipy Hens: Some of the women in the town of Massachusetts spread rumors that Joe has gotten a girl from his high school pregnant out of wedlock before working at the church bell tower. Though Joe says to Charlotte that the rumors spread about him are false and that his former girlfriend just moved away.
  • Heroic B So D: Charlotte and everyone in the town of Massachusetts suffers this after hearing of President Kennedy's assassination.
  • He Who Fights Monsters: Despite her many attempts not to make the same mistakes, Charlotte ends up becoming exactly like her mother Rachel.
  • Hormone-Addled Teenager:
    • Charlotte is one, as she finds herself struggling with thoughts of lust towards her new crush Joe and feels guilty about it.
    • Charlotte's classmate Mary O'Brien brags about her "quivering loins" and active sex life with her boyfriend.
    • All the high school boys at Charlotte's school are this as they flock to Charlotte and try to gain her attention once her virginity is gone.
  • Hypocrite:
    • After Charlotte runs away and Rachel and Lou fight about it, Rachel vows to pack up and leave herself if Charlotte returns. Lou calls her out on it.
    • Later, Rachel explains to Charlotte that running away isn't a solution and admits to uprooting the family from one place to the next whenever things go sideways.
    • During their blow-out argument at the end, Rachel slut-shames Charlotte. Charlotte angrily (and rather bluntly) retorts that Rachel really doesn't have any room to be throwing shade on that score. It earns her a good slap, but, well, frankly Charlotte's got a bit of a point there.
  • Indirect Kiss: "Now my lips are touching his," Charlotte narrates while drinking from Joe's thermos.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: When Mrs. Flax is on her date with her boss Fred, the car rocks outside and audible moans are heard. Though the mood is killed as her boss tells her that he's going away on a business trip without her and he is taking his wife with him.
  • Informed Judaism: The Flaxes. As Charlotte notes, her mother doesn't believe in following any traditions.
  • Ironic Echo Cut: When Charlotte asks her love interest Joe if he likes babies, he replies "I love babies. Some day I hope to have a whole bunch of them". Smash Cut to Charlotte sitting in a gynecologist office packed with many crying babies and pregnant women.
  • Instant Seduction: After giving herself a makeover, Charlotte ascends to the church bell tower, looks at Joe and they immediately have sex.
  • Jealous Romantic Witness: Rachel gives Joe a kiss and wishes him a happy New Year. Charlotte observes the kiss, and becomes enraged, believing her mother is trying to thwart her budding relationship.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: Charlotte who wants to be a good girl and hopefully a nun but she does commit a lot of questionable acts. First, she fears she's become pregnant from a kiss, and the fear results in her starving herself, not talking to anyone, lying to people, stealing her mother's car, and running away to a "normal" family's house where she lies to them about her family life. Then things really go bad when she sees her mother kissing her love interest and Charlotte decides to put on her mother's clothes and makeup, get herself and her sister drunk on liquor and lose her virginity to her love interest. During which her sister almost drowns. Things only get worst when her mother finds out, they fight and her mother suggests they move again as Charlotte gained a "reputation" at her high school.
  • Kids Driving Cars: Downplayed with Charlotte as she's only one year below the legal driving age. However, Rachel implies that she taught Charlotte to drive even before that.
  • Kill the Cutie: Averted with Kate, who almost drowns but is saved by the nuns.
  • Lamarck Was Right: Kate's father was a champion swimmer. She herself has keen skill in swimming, so much that her teacher sees her as Olympic material, just like her father apparently was.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: Discussed. Charlotte fears in private that she may be pregnant from a single kiss (even though that's not how human conception works). Lou mentions a couple in town are trying to conceive with the aid of love potions. Rachel sarcastically remarks to Lou that she wished she had trouble getting pregnant and she would get pregnant if she hung her clothes next to a man's suit.
  • Love at First Sight: Charlotte falls for Joe the first time she sees him, all set to "Johnny Angel".
  • Love Triangle: Briefly between Rachel, Joe and Charlotte.
  • Ma'am Shock: Rachel seems deeply offended when Joe addresses her as "ma'am" during their first encounter (especially since she was seemingly trying to flirt with him.)
  • Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Charlotte and Joe consummate their attraction towards one another in the church's bell tower.
  • Meat-O-Vision: After religiously fasting for so many days, Charlotte collapses from malnutrition and begins to hallucinate her Virgin Mary statue having a big pregnant belly.
  • Miss Conception: Charlotte thinks she gets pregnant from kissing. Apparently she's learned nothing from being around Mrs. Flax.
  • The Mistress: Mrs. Flax was this to her boss Fred, though he prefers taking his wife along with him on his business trip rather than bring Mrs. Flax.
  • Modest Orgasm: Charlotte lets out small gasps of pleasure during her first time with Joe.
  • Morality Pet: Kate is this to both Rachel and Charlotte and it hurts them both when she almost drowns.
  • Motor Mouth: Charlotte says The Lord's Prayer in her head really fast after she kissed Joe in the bell tower and then ran home.
  • Mrs. Robinson: Upon first meeting, Rachel attempts to flirt with her 26-year-old new neighbor Joe. After being given a ride home from the New Year's Eve party due to car trouble (and a spat with Lou), Rachel kisses Joe. Charlotte sees this from the window and is not happy about it Because she is interested in Joe and upset that her mother is attempting to "steal" him.
  • My God, What Have I Done?:
    • Charlotte thinks this after kissing Joe in the bell tower and believing she sinned.
    • Charlotte's reaction after having sex with Joe and realizing her actions almost got Kate killed.
    • Charlotte says this word for word as she hallucinates a pregnant Virgin Mary statue in her room.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: Joe laments to Charlotte that he never got the chance to say goodbye when his former girlfriend moved out of town.
  • Nice Guy: Lou is probably the nicest adult in the movie, quick to dote on the girls as though they'd always been his daughters and not hesitating to help find Charlotte when she runs away. And judging by the end, it seems as though Mrs. Flax finally gives into the idea of a long-term relationship with him.
  • Never Trust a Title: Suffice to say, no actual mermaids appear in this film.
  • Non-Indicative Title: Don't go into this movie expecting it to be about mermaids. The closest thing the film gets referenced to the title is Rachel's New Year's Eve costume as a mermaid and Kate's swimming profession.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: After calming down, Rachel calls Charlotte out on making the same mistakes as she did during their fight. Mainly her promiscuity.
  • Nun Too Holy: Charlotte wants to become a nun, but certain things get in the way of becoming that.
  • Oh, Crap!: Charlotte, when her mother arrives at the hospital, sees her with Joe and figures out what has happened.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Your child not speaking to you (or not being able to speak to you about something important) and then stealing your car, driving off recklessly and disappearing somewhere not knowing if they're dead or alive. Rachel lampshades this to Charlotte during a fight.
  • Office Romance: Mrs. Flax was dating her boss Fred prior to moving.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Rachel relates to Lou that her second child Kate was conceived this way due to a tryst with a swimmer.
  • Parental Substitute: Lou slowly starts growing into a surrogate father for both Flax girls, particularly Kate (whose real fathers are absent). Rachel resents it, feeling jealousy and thinking he's doing this solely to get close with her.
  • Percussive Therapy: During their big fight at the end, Rachel slaps Charlotte and is much calmer afterwards.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Throughout the film, Charlotte and Rachel fail to communicate with one another about many issues (relocation, love and relationships, teen pregnancy, etc.). Only after their mother-daughter fight do they both calm down and discuss their problems leading to a better understanding of one another.
  • Really Gets Around: Mrs. Flax. The Flaxs move frequently as a result of Mrs. Flax escaping her failed relationships, and at the start of the film Charlotte says that they've moved 18 times.
    Mrs. Flax: Okay, how do I look?
    Charlotte: Like a woman about to go forth in sin.
    Mrs. Flax: Oh good, exactly the look I was hoping for.
  • Right Through His Pants: Charlotte and Joe keep all their clothes on when they have sex for the first time.
  • Rhyming Names: While spending time with a "normal" family in Connecticut, Charlotte lies to the family, claiming that her name is "Sal Val".
  • Scare Chord: Happens when Charlotte kisses Joe in the church bell tower and she sees the angel statues looking down upon her.
  • Screw This, I'm Out of Here!:
    • Mrs. Flax packs up and relocates after her boss breaks up with her in the film's opening.
    • After Kate almost drowns, Rachel packs a suitcase for Kate and almost leaves only for Charlotte to come yelling back at her. Then Rachel says they should all pack up and move altogether to avoid the town talking about Joe and Charlotte.
  • Self-Deprecation: Rachel is actually aware she's a terrible mother and role model for Charlotte, but honestly feels she's too stuck in her ways to change, even lampshading it herself.
    Mrs. Flax: We're gonna play my favorite game: "who's the worst mother in the world?" Oh now, don't tell me, let me guess, who could it be? Could it be — ME?
  • Sex Changes Everything: After having sex in the bell tower, Charlotte says things are different now between her and Joe and he leaves for California. For reasons implied due to the townspeople talking about him and Charlotte together (he's 26 and she is 15), he could be tried as a sex offender.
    Charlotte: You look different.
    Joe: You look beautiful.
  • Sexy Discretion Shot: Rachel and Lou ask if the other wants to go anywhere before heading to the bedroom together. The scene cuts away to Charlotte going on her boat ride with Joe. When it cuts back to the Flax residence, Rachel and Lou have already slept together.
  • Sex Equals Love: Invoked by Charlotte. After the fight, Charlotte tells her mom she had sex with Joe because she thought she loved him and she thought her mom was trying to steal him away from her.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: Charlotte, who has feelings of lust over Joe but feels she must keep from acting on such thoughts due to her wanting to become a nun. She ultimately does have sex with Joe.
  • Ship Sinking: Charlotte's relationship with Joe crumbles due to the controversy surrounding them in the bell tower, their age differences, and he has to leave.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Rachel reads a tv guide that has Elizabeth Taylor on the cover dressed up as Cleopatra.
    • At the gynecologists office, Charlotte's fake name she picks out for herself at the office is "Joan Arc".
    • The name of the book that Charlotte Flax reads was "The Lives of the Saints" (1894) by Alban Butler.
  • Shower of Angst: Charlotte scrubs herself clean after kissing Joe in the bell tower and believing she sinned. She does it again after Kate almost drowned while she was having sex with Joe.
  • The '60s: The film begins in early fall 1963 and ends the following spring. In one scene, the assassination of John F. Kennedy is broadcast on a black-and-white television set.
  • Slut-Shaming: Charlotte slut-shames her mother for sleeping and flirting with countless men and moving the family across states because the affairs ended badly. Rachel slut-shames Charlotte because her having sex with Joe almost got Kate killed.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: Rachel lights one up after sleeping with Lou.
  • Storefront Television Display: It's through one of these that Rachel (along with several other townspeople) discovers John F. Kennedy has died of his gunshot wounds.
  • Suddenly Shouting: Rachel remains quiet up until she goes inside the house to collect Kate's things and then Charlotte gives her a fish book.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Kate is a professional swimmer. But due to being drunk, Kate is unable to swim and almost drowns.
    • Although Kate survives near-drowning, the accident has affected her hearing and left her partially deaf.
    • After having sex, the controversy surrounding Joe and Charlotte due to their ages (26-years-old and 15-years-old) causes Joe to have to relocate to another state, and possibly he's wanted as a sex offender (since this would be statutory rape), while Charlotte gains a sexual reputation at her school.
    • After being unable to confide in her mother about her fears, Charlotte steals her mother's car and takes off to a "normal" family's home. Even though Charlotte lies about her name and family history, the father contacts the police and they identify the licensed car parked outside the family's residential home. They then contact Rachel and inform her of Charlotte's whereabouts, with Lou going to get her.
    • After religiously fasting for so many days, Charlotte ends up passing out due to malnutrition.
  • Technical Virgin: Charlotte's classmate tells her friends about how she had oral sex with her boyfriend by the railroad tracks and that she loves it when they groan. Once Charlotte loses her virginity completely, all the boys attention goes from Mary to Charlotte.
  • Title Drop: When Rachel shows off her New Year's Eve costume to her daughters before the party.
    Rachel: Ta-Da!
    Kate: You're a mermaid!
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Narrowly Averted. Kate almost dies because Charlotte was having sex with Joe instead of watching her.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior:
    • When getting drunk on her mom's booze, Charlotte allows Kate to have one drink but when her back is turned, Kate has more than one drink. Enough to make herself drunk. It's played for laughs up until Kate nearly drowns.
    • Rachel reveals to Joe that Charlotte licked yellow chalk off a board in school when she was a child because she read in a book that a saint had visions from God after licking chalk. This behavior caused the previous school to become concerned about Charlotte's well-being, leading Rachel to pack up and move her family.
  • Vague Age: Charlotte is 15, but Kate's age is never stated. She looks to be somewhere between 7 and 10. (Christina Ricci was 10 at the time).
  • Wacky Cravings: After giving in to her hunger and eating the chocolate cake, cookies and milk her mother gives her, Charlotte panics and thinks that her ravenous appetite means it's because she is pregnant with the Lord's child. In reality, her appetite was from fasting for days and she remembered nothing about human conception.
  • Wacky Parent, Serious Child: Rachel is the eccentric mother of two while her oldest daughter Charlotte is the most serious one.
  • Wham Line: A teacher comes into Charlotte's classroom during a projection slide history reel they're watching and weeps to the other teacher, "The president's been shot!".
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Rachel chews Charlotte out for her actions leading to Kate almost drowning.
    Rachel: (suddenly yelling) What the hell you were thinking?! She could've died! Your sister, who you should've been looking after! What the hell was she doing out there? What the hell were you doing out there—? Oh, I know what you were doing out there. The whole goddamn town knows what you were doing!
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Averted. In the opening monologue Charlotte narrates how she originally wanted to name her sister Kate after Saint Gobnait the virgin beekeeper but Rachel decided against it and named her Kate instead.
    Charlotte: (narrating) I wanted to name her after Saint Gobnait the virgin beekeeper but our mother, Mrs. Flax, thought I was a little peculiar.
  • World of Snark: Even little Kate can snark with the best of them.
    Kate (to Charlotte, who's prancing around in their mother's clothes and makeup): Act your age, not your shoe size.


Video Example(s):


Charlotte's Pregnancy Scare

15-year-old religious prude Charlotte Flax fears she has become pregnant from kissing a man. Much embarrassment is about to ensue.

How well does it match the trope?

4 (2 votes)

Example of:

Main / MissConception

Media sources: