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‘The Good Mother’s sudden need for surprises upends this topical murder mystery

Hillary Swank plays a journalist plagued with writers block and a mother looking for answers about the death of her youngest son.

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Marissa (Hilary Swank) seems to know unspeakable loss at all corners of her life. In the first moments of Miles Joris-Peyrafitte’s The Good Mother, we see her arise from her living room couch after a long night of drinking. There are subtle shots of family photos that lessen the amount of people in each frame. As a journalist, not only is Marissa dealing with writer’s block and grieving over the loss of her husband five years ago, but she’ll soon be mourning her youngest son, Michael – a drug user and dealer who is tragically killed in an apparent retaliation attempt.

The tones of The Good Mother, shown to be in 2016 Albany, NY, are dreary and somewhat heavy – the town looks as if it’s drowning in the difficulties of addiction. Peyrafitte and co-writer Madison Harrison use one family as a metaphor and include a couple of other characters to see how wide-ranging the pain of loss can be. For the most part, Marissa is in a drunken haze as she tries to cope with this murder mystery. Her oldest son and Albany police officer Toby (Jack Reynor) feel that all signs point to Michael’s drug-dealing friend, Ducky (Hopper Penn). While at the funeral, Marissa is not particularly keen on seeing Michael’s pregnant and recovering addict girlfriend Paige (Olivia Cooke).

Despite a striking blow, both Marissa and Paige want to find out what happened – it’s an at-first uneasy but then natural pairing of a soon-to-be-mother and an elder matriarch who is trying to hang on to the only semblance of family she has. The film has two pathways it wants to go, and early on, it looks to investigate how continual grief manifests coupled with broken dreams. We get shown quick montages of Michael’s younger baseball player years, old photos, and voicemail messages. There’s a slight story of his hopes for Paige, Ducky, and himself to get a farmhouse and stay out of trouble. All of this is told in a manner where Marissa seems to have an out-of-body experience concerning her alcohol consumption.

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At least at first, Joris-Peyrafitte and Harrison’s story is looking to capture what the cycle of addiction does to a town and discreetly capture instances of the real-life fentanyl crisis at the same time. Where The Good Mother begins to falter is bringing home the murder mystery noir aspect. Paige looks for leads, and Marissa almost begrudgingly comes along to every stop. Swank does an efficient job of capturing a mother at her wit's end when life has just beaten her up – but this direction almost hinders the twists and turns of what happens during the third act. The narrative already has its villain, but the need for a shocking turn puts a damper on what the film tries to convey.

The sad thing about The Good Mother is that if more simplified, there would be a resonance in that this could occur in any small community – if only there were more to the sudden whiplash of expectations.