What Makes a Family (2001) Dir. Maggie Greenwald
Janine (Brooke Shields) is a weak person. She is vulnerable, fragile, afraid. She lets denial and depression take over. She is an introvert. She is not a fighter or a role model. But her story is the story of separation, the separation that shapes her into a winner.
Janine is separated from her family. Her parents, in all their white WASPiness, do not accept their daughter’s homosexuality. They seem cold to the point of being heartless. Instead of support, they condemn her. She does not matter to them because she chose to be open and proud of being lesbian. So they reject her even when she comes asking for help.
Janine is separated from Sandy (Cherry Jones). When Janine and Sandy meet, it is Sandy who pursues her, it is Sandy who takes initiative. They fall in love and get married. Their marriage, however, is not legal in the state of Florida. Then, like many other couples, they decide to have a baby. Once again, it is Sandy who brings Janine to this idea. Janine is afraid what others will think, what rights they have to raise a child. Sandy’s love, warmth, and caring win her over. Sandy gives a birth to a girl. Sadly, soon after she is diagnosed with lupus. The difficult and heartbreaking disease takes five years to take her away. Sandy fights with lupus with all her strength, but Janine is in denial that her partner is dying. Finally, lupus separates Janine from Sandy.
Janine is separated from her daughter Heather (Jordy Benattar). It seems it takes a moment to separate a mother and a child. Florida does not acknowledge Janine and Sandy’s marriage. Janine is not Heather’s biological mother or her relative. So Heather is taken away. Janine feels defeated. She separates herself from reality and falls into depression and nervous breakdown. With the help of friends, she slowly goes back to life. She is not a fighter, an outspoken extrovert. She is weak and fragile. She is overwhelmed by circumstances, by the loss of the loved one, by the separation from her daughter. It is difficult for her to even get out of bed and call her daughter on the phone.
Janine is separated from the law. Her homosexuality separates her from being seen and treated as a rightful person, as a parent, as a mother. She loses in court, but it does not stop her from trying again. She convinces a sought-after lawyer (Whoopi Goldberg) that Heather is her daughter and she wants to get her back. She goes against the very law that separated her from Heather. She goes against the notion that blood relations equal family. Janine’s parents reject her, whereas Sandy fully accepted and loved her.
Janine is separated from her fear. She takes control over her life and fights for getting her daughter back. Now she has more confidence when she speaks in court. She believes she is the best parent for Heather, unlike Heather’s homophobic grandparents. Her experiences with loss and rejection shape her into being stronger. Her story proves that what makes a family is choosing to be with people you love, not being related to them.