Review: Two-Time Oscar Winner Hilary Swank Carries The Good Mother, a Dark Family Drama Best Served by Its Performances

I sometimes have to remind myself that Hilary Swank has two Academy Awards, and I in no way mean that as a slight to her acting abilities. She’s one of the best working, yet we always seem to forget it because the films she’s made in the last 10 years or so have been small and/or forgettable and certainly run no risk of earning her a third statue. For example, Swank gives what I think is a terrific performance in her latest work, The Good Mother, in which she plays editor and former reporter Marissa Jennings, working for the Albany Times Union (a real newspaper, by the way). 

Marissa gave up being a reporter after her husband died not long before the film is set, and as the film opens, she learns that her estranged son Michael has been murdered, leaving behind pregnant girlfriend Paige (Olivia Cooke). By all accounts, Michael was a drug addict and dealer, so his death isn’t a complete shock, but Marissa wants closure and decides to dust off her investigative training and find out exactly what got her son killed and maybe even who did it. It helps that her other son, Toby (Jack Reynor) is a local police officer and is willing to help his mother out when he can. Out of desperation and Marissa’s concern for her future grandchild, she lets Paige move in with her, and the two actually do start to bond and work together to uncover what happened to Michael.

What Marissa discovers is a twisted world of corruption and crime that permeates Albany’s underbelly, and in many ways The Good Mother seems very much of the city where it was shot. This is exactly how I’ve always pictured Albany, and director/co-writer Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (Dreamland), if nothing else, gives us a real sense of a place I will never visit in my life. He also concocts a mystery that took me about 15 minutes to figure out, but what I couldn’t quite predict is how Marissa was going to react when she found out the story of her son’s murder. Would she finally break out of her funk and write the account of the final days of his life? Or would she sink deeper into her sorrow at losing yet another loved one? There’s some indication that her relationship with her late husband wasn’t exactly what we’re initially led to believe it was, and that’s both slightly confusing and left frustratingly unexplored—one of the film’s handful of shortcomings.

But the strength of The Good Mother lies in its performances. Swank and Cooke, in particular, are quite good here and go a long way toward elevating the material beyond its run-of-the-mill screenplay. Also providing some solid supporting work are Hopper Penn (son of Robin Wright and Sean Penn) as Michael’s sketchy best friend; Norm Lewis as Marissa’s boss and mentor; and Dilone as Toby’s also pregnant wife, who also forms something of a bond with Paige, who looks up to her as an example of a woman who has her life together. But it’s the world-weary looks on both Swank and Cooke’s faces that tell all the story we need about where these two women’s lives are in this moment. The world and life has been against them for years, but they still keep going. Like the film itself, their lives are a combination of admirable and draining.

The film is now in theaters.

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Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.