On the surface, this is a heartwarming story of a mother and two daughters learning how to get along as a family, but I find some of the more subtle implications to be pretty loathsome. The biggest letdown of the movie though is that it's titled 'Mermaids' and has nothing whatsoever to do with real mermaids. Such a bummer.
Synopsis is as follows: Jewish mother (Cher) who can't deal with her problems moves the family every time she does something scandalous. As it's 1963 and she's rather liberated, this is often. Angsty teen daughter (Winona Ryder) rebels against her mother by going off the other deep end and aspiring to be a nun. But when they move to yet another new place, her lust for the studly caretaker (Michael Schoeffling) wins out over pious prudery.
What bothers me more than the lack of real mermaids is what this movie says as a coming of age story. It does an excellent job setting up the insane Catholic demonization of sex and how it makes a person act incredibly irrationally, only to give it complete justification in the denouement.
Yeah, the moral of this story is if you have sex, it will screw you up. You'll either have too many illicit affairs, not be able to handle the consequences, and make your family miserable, or your little sister will have a terrible accident and you will think you killed her, all the while still making your family miserable.
Here are the spoiler details: comic relief from the fighting Cher and Winona is the younger sister (Christina Ricci), who's a super awesome swimmer. At the end of the movie Cher's out to a New Year's party, and Christina and Winona get drunk at home. They go to the neighboring convent, where Winona loses her virginity to Michael (in the bell tower no less), and Christina falls into the creek but is too trashed to swim out.
Bell tower love fest is interrupted by the screams of the nuns fishing Christina out of the creek and everyone freaks out and is all kinds of sad. Like it isn't bad enough to have the church hitting you over the head with how evil sex is, now we get to have a major motion picture telling the kids that sex is traumatizing. God forbid people preach the message of responsibility and that sex can be good for you when used appropriately.
Other disturbing subtexts: Cher is also scammin' on Michael. Sure, he's a total babe, and way hotter than what you're currently hitting (Smee! I mean, Bob Hoskins). But mothers, don't chase after the love interests of your daughters. I really hope all the mothers out there can understand why this would be a bad thing.
Michael is 26 in the film, so the age difference between him and cougar Cher seems like less of an issue than mid-twenties Michael being ok with doing high school Winona. I guess it wasn't uncommon for dudes my age in the 60's to go after high schoolers? But that still doesn't make it sit well with me. Let's not promote predatory behavior.
Last really irritating thing about Mermaids: it's yet one more time the less-than-cute dude gets the super babe, i.e. Smee! sorry, Bob Hoskins hookin' up with Cher. This wouldn't make me nearly so cranky if there was ever an instance of the less-than-cute girl getting the smoking hot dude.
Sure, throw out the examples of Sixteen Candles and She's All That, but those are hot boys hooking up with nerdy or unpopular chicks that are actually really hot. Once you take off the glasses. Way to teach the young'uns that it's ok to be ugly if you're a dude, 'cause you can always compensate by having a winning personality. But tough shit if you're a not-so-hot lady, your winning personality isn't ever gonna get you that dreamy babe.
Final verdict: movie fail. Because there's nothing worse than badness posing as wholesome and benign.