When Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) leaves a rambling voicemail message for her daughter Lori (Rose Byrne) detailing her every move since relocating to Los Angeles, adult-aged children everywhere will nod in recognition. We've all been there: the missed calls, the text messages, the snooping. And yet while writer-director Lorene Scafaria initially appears set to provide a comic look at coping with an overbearing mother, The Meddler soon proves a different film entirely. Instead, it's an honest, heartfelt exploration of a relatable family dynamic, and of the role of mums everywhere.
Marnie's new LA existence isn't just a case of not being able to stay out of her offspring's business. A year after the death of her husband, she's forcing herself to stay positive and find a sense of purpose, even if she's actually avoiding her grief in the process. But with Lori depressed over her breakup with film star Jacob (Jason Ritter), and trying to get her latest TV pilot made, mother-daughter bonding time isn't a priority. So instead, Marnie channels her well-intentioned interfering into paying for a wedding for one of Lori's friends (Cecily Strong), driving her local Apple Store employee (Jerrod Carmichael) to his night classes, volunteering at a hospital and meeting retired cop Zipper (J.K. Simmons) after wandering onto a film set.
In the absence of any cynical laughs, two elements ensure The Meddler avoids any resemblance to the saccharine soul-searching quest it might sound like on paper: its ripped-from-reality feel, and its remarkable lead performance. The former comes courtesy of Scafaria's own experience, with the Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist writer having undergone a similar process with her own mother when she started working in Hollywood. It's the latter, however, that helps the film overcome a few sitcom-like developments, and truly makes proceedings seem sincere.
Sarandon doesn't just play her part with a broad Brooklyn accent and a smile plastered across her face. She also shows grace and care in a role that could've easily been a caricature, yet never becomes one. There's an openness and earnestness to her portrayal that works just as well when Marnie is unable to resist overstepping her bounds with Lori (checking her browser history, for example), as it does when she's forming a connection with the chicken-raising, Dolly Parton-playing Zipper. Both Byrne and Simmons prove up to the task set by their co-star, bringing the requisite depth to their supporting but pivotal roles.
Of course, where the story heads is far from surprising, with The Meddler designed to be both reflective and upbeat. With a tender touch and a sunny disposition, Scafaria isn't just working through her complicated relationship with her mother. She's also allowing viewers to do exactly the same thing.