Netflix’s A Family Affair tries to reject old stories of sexual women being ‘bad mothers’. Too bad it’s a terrible film

Netflix’s A Family Affair tries to reject old stories of sexual women being ‘bad mothers’. Too bad it’s a terrible film

A Family Affair is Netflix’s latest entry in the recently resuscitated rom-com genre. The streaming giant’s film execs have described the revival as a tactical decision to plug – and capitalise on – an identified gap in the market.

This began with a young audience in mind, with films such as To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Kissing Booth. A Family Affair, however, strives to capture an older female audience who grew up in the halcyon days of the 1990s Nora Ephron rom-com.

The film attempts to look at the compromises women make to prioritise their families and partners, joining other works such as Prime Video’s The Idea of You (2024), Maggie Gyllenhall’s The Lost Daughter (2021), HBO’s Big Little Lies (2017–19) and Pamela Adlon’s excellent series Better Things (2016–22). But unlike these examples, A Family Affair isn’t very good.

Tonal patchiness

The film pairs Nicole Kidman’s character, award-winning author and widow of 11 years, Brooke Harwood, with Zac Efron’s much younger character Chris Cole, a womanising Hollywood heartthrob who catapulted to fame through a cheesy action franchise.

The duo’s implausible romance is set in motion when Brooke’s daughter Zara (Joey King) quits her job as Chris’s personal assistant.

Chris Cole (Zac Efron) is a Hollywood womaniser who attained fame through cheesy action franchise ‘Icarus Rush’.

In a “meet-cute” that beggars belief even within the rom-com universe of unlikely pairings, Chris somehow mistakes the glamorous Brooke for a cleaner. Naturally, the pair connect over a bottle of tequila before ripping one another’s clothes off.

The sequence ends with Zara catching them in the act, wheeling around in horror only to knock herself out on a door frame. It’s intended as slapstick, but the scene falls flat. In a society where women’s bodies are routinely subjected to violence, inviting us to laugh at Joey’s black eye and concussion feels uncomfortable.

Throughout A Family Affair, the jokes are thin at best and cringe-inducing at worst. The film suffers from tonal patchiness, careening wildly between sincerity and parody. These failings are made especially frustrating by the small glimmers that suggest it might actually have something interesting to say.

The film’s sense of humour is on the verge of being parodical.

‘One or the other’

In an early scene, Brooke confesses to her mother-in-law, Leila (a woefully underutilised Kathy Bates), that she worries she has become “irrelevant” and invisible.

For Brooke, this is bound up with her waning usefulness as a mother. She begins taking stock of her life, only to realise it doesn’t add up to much. Single and ageing, she is struggling to write, her daughter has grown up, and she finds herself having built an identity around her maternal role.

Later, we find out that not only did Brooke’s writing take a backseat in the wake of her husband Charlie’s death, but they were also “having problems” prior to his cancer diagnosis. Charlie, it transpires, couldn’t cope with Brooke’s success and was planning to leave her.

These are important details that raise questions about maternal identity, regret and the many compromises women make to prioritise their families and partners.

Brooke (Nicole Kidman) seems to have built her identity around being a mother.

My research looks at productions that foreground maternal protagonists and grapple with women’s desires to be “more than just a mother”. And they often use sex as a vehicle to initiate this discussion.

The quarantining of motherhood from sexuality has a long history, dating back to the venerated Virgin Mary who miraculously managed to sidestep the issue altogether.

Similarly, popular culture has branded the sexual mother as a “bad” mum, whose voracious desire not only threatens the sanctity of the family but also compromises her ability to parent. Netflix’s hugely successful soapy soft-porn series Sex/Life (2021–23), which pitted a mother’s sexual pleasure against her mundane domestic life, is an excellent example.

A Family Affair offers a similar scenario when Zara demands her mother end the affair. Clearly, in Zara’s eyes, Brooke can’t be both a sexual person and a good mother. Against this backdrop, Brooke’s frustrated insistence that “I just don’t see why it has to be one or the other” reads as a flat-out rejection of the well-worn Madonna/whore trope.

Kathy Bates, who plays Brooke’s mother-in-law, is woefully underused in the film.

Cougars, MILFS and happy-ever-afters

Unfortunately, like the film itself, the sex scenes aren’t very satisfying. The duo lack chemistry and scenes are played more for laughs than titillation.

While director Richard LaGravenese insists the couple’s star power and lack of inhibition imbue the comedy with sexiness, the lame quips and shirt ripping are farcical, if not outright failures.

Failure is often used in comedy to defuse the threatening and unknown. In this case, the film’s failure to depict Brooke engaging in hot sex neutralises the threat she poses as a sexual mother. This reduces her to just another figure in a long line of cougars and MILFs: the object of desire, perhaps, but rarely the active desiring subject herself.

The sex scenes and (lack of) chemistry will leave wanting.

Another way sexual mothers are made “safe” is through the conventional happy-ever-after ending. Romantic endings are obviously a staple of the genre, but Brooke and Chris’s happy-ever-after also doubles as a redemption arc to bring the transgressive mother back into the socially sanctioned fold of the monogamous family unit.

Romantic comedies have always been entangled with their specific sociocultural moment, often staging anxieties about rapidly changing gender norms and social roles in a witty battle of the sexes. While the 1940s saw rom-com heroines fighting for equal footing and the 1980s focused on workplace inclusion, 2024’s entries appear to have the interests of the middle-aged sexual mother at heart.

Lame jokes, unlikable characters and lacklustre chemistry aside, this is arguably where the film most disappoints: it might tease and tantalise with promises of Brooke triumphantly getting both the “one and the other” – but ultimately, by dampening Brooke’s sexual desire so thoroughly, it fails to deliver.

The post “Netflix’s A Family Affair tries to reject old stories of sexual women being ‘bad mothers’. Too bad it’s a terrible film” by Rachel Williamson, Senior Tutor in English, University of Canterbury was published on 07/03/2024 by