Love & Stuff
(USA, 80 min.)
Dir: Judith Helfand
Navel-gazing and contemplating motherhood have an obvious affinity: we’re all linked on a chain of umbilical cords to mothers back through generations. Judith Helfand’s diary documentary, Love & Stuff (co-directed with David Cohen) regards herself as both a grieving daughter and, at 50, a new mother.
Helfand is a Peabody Award-winning director whose work toggles between the personal and the social in issues of health and social justice. Her 2019 film, Cooked: Death By Zipcode, looked at the disproportionate number of African-American deaths during a mid-nineties Chicago heat wave, for the same race and class reasons that echo in the COVD deaths today. Other docs included Blue Vinyl (co-directed with Daniel B. Gold) about the quest to find environmentally-safe siding for parents’ home, and her debut film, 1997’s Healthy Baby Girl, which recounted the story of how her mother’s anti-miscarriage drug, diethylstilbestrol (DES) led to the filmmaker’s rare form of cervical cancer at the age of 25.
Love & Stuff, is, in a sense a sequel to that earlier film. It was during her recovery from a hysterectomy at 25 that Helfand took up her camera and began documenting her close relationship with her mother, Florence: “The camera helped us stay connected.” Florence adores her daughter and clearly feels guilt over the condition she passed on to her. She’s affectionate, protective and unabashedly manipulative. When Florence is diagnosed with metastatic colon cancer, she asks her daughter for two things: visit every weekend and lose 50 pounds. The guilt bond goes both ways as Judith doesn’t manage to do either in the months leading to her mother’s death.
Florence died at home in 2013._ Love & Stuff_ covers the next few years of Helfand’s life, when she fulfills her dream of adopting a child, and gradually starts to sort through the 63 boxes of her mother’s household goods and souvenirs, which are crammed into her New York apartment. No doubt it’s a struggle for her but it tends to play out like a make-over show. Helfand has a nurse, and then a nanny, and a fitness trainer. Eventually, Helfand even loses the weight, thanks to gastric band surgery.
Love & Stuff gets less interesting the better Helfand is managing her life. The second half of the film feels like the closing chapters of a peppy self-help book called How I Came To Terms With My Mother, Lost 50 Pounds and Had A Wonderful Baby Girl! The film’s story sprawls and circles back, as it tries to find its focus, reintroducing old film clips of Florence to add pathos. Losing a parent or having a child is a big event in a person’s life but it’s not usually considered unusual enough to be of public interest. What we’re left with here is a professional filmmaker’s home movie which is still likely to be of most interest to its subject and her immediate relatives.
Love & Stuff screens at Hot Docs’ online festival beginning May 28.