In 1963, the summer months are coming to an end. The news is dominated by civil rights demonstrations, Beatlemania is starting to sweep the globe, and the president will be dead in less than 90 days.
Somewhere in Oklahoma, the Flax family is gearing up to make their 19th move. It’s what they do each time matriarch Rachel (Cher), aka Mrs. Flax, has her heart broken. Whenever her two daughters, 15-year-old Charlotte (Winona Ryder) and 9-year-old Kate (Christina Ricci), pick up on certain cues—this time around, hearing her sing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the bathtub—they know to start packing up their things. They’ve spent their entire lives following their mother from one town to the next; they know the drill. Thus begins Richard Benjamin’s Mermaids, based on Patty Dann’s 1986 novel of the same name.
Mrs. Flax’s tendency to relocate when times get tough is her way of living by her motto: “Death is dwelling on the past or staying in one place too long.” When she realizes that the man she’s sleeping with won’t leave his wife to be with her, she drives her daughters to the fictional town of Eastport, Massachusetts to start all over again.
The Flax sisters have clearly learned to have portable hobbies. Kate loves the water, any water, swimming at a pre-Olympic level. Charlotte instead cycles through obsessions, currently studying the Bible and consumed by the idea of becoming a nun. The Flaxes are Jewish, but Charlotte doesn’t care. She uses her bedroom desk as a makeshift prayer stand, the space decorated with Catholic figurines and photos of the Kennedys. “Dear God,” she prays in voiceover, “please don’t let us be leaving right away. Please let me stop lying all the time. Please don’t let me fall crazy in love so much and please let someone fall crazy in love back. And please send me a sign. Amen.” Eastport, literally chosen at random by Mrs. Flax from a map of the United States, is small enough that everyone knows about the “nice Jewish family” that recently arrived; where the school bus driver, Joe (Michael Schoeffling), is also the local handyman and the caretaker of the convent up the hill.
Our first glimpse of Joe is of the back of his head. Our second is the frame above, the camera assuming Charlotte’s perspective as she spots him for the first time. The Flaxes have returned from running back-to-school errands to find him waiting to introduce himself in their driveway. Encased in rings of light, his keys to the convent hang off of his belt—a metaphor if there ever was one. Shelley Fabares’ 1961 rendition of “Johnny Angel” begins to play, as if in Charlotte’s head. Joe is obviously the sign from God that she’d prayed for, here to save her. “26 and cute as a button,” Mrs. Flax says as they put away their groceries. “Too bad you’re set on being a nun.”
I’ll meet my Joe exactly 50 years later, when I’m 17. I’ll swivel my chair around in class to find myself face-to-face with him. He’ll be 19, with freckles and very blue eyes. He’ll be wearing a grey hoodie with the name of our new school on it; he’ll wear this hoodie a lot. We’ll team up for an assignment and be best friends by Halloween, the kind of friend I didn’t realize I’d never had. I’ll learn quickly that he has a girlfriend and feel genuine relief at this, as it means I don’t have to admit that I’ve fallen in love. I’ll start thinking about his Christmas present in November. We’ll spend hours combing through racks of used DVDs, and watch them in bed in our pajamas until 3 a.m. I’ll travel long distances to see him. He’ll travel long distances to see me. The girlfriend will become another girlfriend, who’ll become another girlfriend. This will continue for a year and a half, until only one of us is still a teenager. I’ll stay secretly in love the whole time. I’ll attempt to befriend the girlfriends, but they won’t like me; I’ll understand why but struggle to really care. I’ll think my secret is well-kept, but he’ll know, as will my mom. My friends and classmates and professors will assume, and correctly. One night, we’ll get drunk and go dancing and I’ll say all of these things, as breathlessly as I’ve written them here. We’ll fall asleep, and, in the morning, do something we shouldn’t. The friendship will implode, slowly and gruelingly over half a decade. I’ll cry about it every several months, even though I’ve fallen in love with someone else, because it’s the friendship I’m grieving more than anything. I’ll be told that everyone has a story like this from their teens, which I’ll hate because I’m well out of my teens and the story is still happening. I’ll plod on with my life.
I watch the film again.
Pulling into the driveway of her new home, Charlotte can see Joe, but she can’t really see Joe. Backlit by the sunlight bouncing off of the Atlantic, he’s more of a silhouette than a personality—a blank slate ripe for projection on a teenage girl’s part. He might be looking at her; he’s more likely looking at her mother. All of Eastport is looking at her mother.
Her mother, it seems, is also looking at Joe. Charlotte eavesdrops one day as Mrs. Flax asks for gossip about him from Carrie, the town’s door-to-door cosmetics saleslady. Both Flaxes learn that he was the high school “golden boy” whose performance on the football field took a sudden dive when his girlfriend left town. “My theory? I happen to believe there’s a little Joey Jr. walking around somewhere,” Carrie tells Mrs. Flax. Unusually for Rachel, she has nothing witty to offer in the moment; in fact, she seems to recede. Herself a single mother by two different fathers, both of whom are long since estranged, the rumor likely stings more than it excites. Charlotte’s brain, quite differently, seems to skip right over the ousted woman, her damaged reputation, her possible child. “Joey, Joey, Joey,” she thinks. “Entering a convent for the sin of getting a girl pregnant. A penitent man. Makes me love you even more.” How she warps this same set of facts is, by extension, telling of how little sympathy she has for her mother and her choices.
It’s also a testament to Charlotte’s skill at projection, something we’re introduced to earlier in Mermaids. All she has of her father is a black-and-white photo of a man wearing saddle shoes—the top half of it ripped off, presumably by her mother. Impressively, Charlotte has managed to manufacture an entire memory just from the photo: a conversation between her childhood self and the saddle-shoed man, wherein he teaches her to protect her eyes from an eclipse. As with her first glimpse of Joe, backlighting has turned the man into a mere silhouette. “You know, Charlotte, the only thing you can rely on about your father is that he can’t be relied on,” Mrs. Flax warns her. But Charlotte truly believes that he’ll come back one day. She is, after all, a woman of faith—at ease putting her trust in elusive, even faceless male figures in the hope of some eventual return.
While Charlotte has fallen hard for Joe, her sign from God, he seems mostly indifferent to her advances, indulging her out of politeness and perhaps a lack of day-to-day excitement. As she exits his school bus one day in October, she invites herself to come fishing with him on Sunday, his day off. He responds that he generally likes to “sit by the water and think” on such outings. When she pushes on, he suggests that she bring her sister, and she lies that Kate hates the water. It might be that Charlotte misses these hints; it’s more likely that she won’t let them register. She can’t acknowledge that he’s eager to close the bus door on her, continually reaching for the lever and pulling his hand back each time she resumes speaking. She can’t acknowledge that he ultimately agrees to the outing by reasoning that he’ll be driving past her house anyway. When Sunday comes, she makes them sandwiches to pass the quarter of an hour that he’s late to pick her up. “Please, God, let him throw me on the ground and make another Joey Jr.,” she prays as they head for the water, even though he’s practically running away from her. Like the one she has with her father, and perhaps God, Charlotte is deeply invested in a relationship happening almost entirely in her head.
It takes a weak moment—on a national level, that is—to finally bridge the gap between them. Charlotte is in class when the president is shot in Dallas in November, and Eastport crumbles with the rest of the country. Rather than going home, she seeks Joe out and finds him in the bell tower of the convent, weeping. “The world’s gone crazy,” he sobs, just as she pulls him in for an impassioned kiss. She takes a moment to be horrified at what she’s done. She goes back in for more. We don’t get to see much of Joe’s face in the scene, only enough of it to know that he’s indeed kissing her back. Charlotte then quickly leaves before he can say anything; she and Joe are no longer make-believe, and that was her area of expertise.
The physical realm is thornier. In the early hours of 1964, Charlotte is awakened by the sound of Joe’s truck. She pulls the front curtain back to find him not waiting outside to profess his love but sharing “a little New Year’s Eve kiss” with Mrs. Flax. The kiss is largely Mrs. Flax’s doing, though it’s less an advance than an act of vengeance against her lover, Lou (Bob Hoskins), who wouldn’t come home with her that night. Charlotte practically flies out of the house, seemingly unsure which of the two she ought to be angrier at. “You kissed him?! You kissed him?! How could you do that?!” she yells at her mother before turning her attention to Joe. “How could you let her kiss you?” Mrs. Flax leaves Charlotte yelling at him outside: “Why did you let her?! I mean, she kisses everybody, don’t you know that? I mean, it doesn’t mean you’re special or anything! It doesn’t mean she likes you or anything like that!” At a loss for what to do or say to this girl with whom he has no real contract, Joe quickly drives off.
My Joe and I will argue constantly. He’ll love my Christmas present. He’ll tell me that he’s somewhat embarrassed to use my Christmas present in public. I’ll dress up more than usual for class one day. He’ll ask me why I did this instead of telling me I look nice. I’ll cry in my dorm room that night. He won’t come to class, and my professor will ask me where he is. I’ll be embarrassed that she asked me in front of my classmates. I’ll be embarrassed that I don’t know. I’ll be embarrassed that the reason I don’t know is that I’m not the girlfriend. The girlfriend and I will have the same job description in every sense but physically. I’ll turn down advances, from men and women. I’ll have no real reason to do this. I’ll make up reasons to do this. I’ll be slower to discover important things about myself as a result. I’ll kiss the odd stranger and tell him so that I can watch him react. He’ll be awkward when I tell him. He’ll make fun of my hickeys because they’re childish, which is true. He’ll sleep with my friend. I’ll be secretly angry at both of them, even though I have no right to be. I’ll say unkind things about each of them to the other person. When we do the thing we shouldn’t, he’ll give me hickeys. He’ll ask to see me again that evening, and I’ll learn that it’s to tell me he doesn’t think we should date. I’ll sleep 12 hours a night for two weeks. I’ll cry to my mom on the phone. She’ll tell me that she’s been waiting for this moment. I’ll need to do something self-destructive and quickly, and throw myself at a man I’d previously turned down. I’ll be confused when the man falls in love with me. I’ll be even more confused when I fall in love with the man. My Joe will make jokes about the man, and I’ll find this unfair. He’ll be awkward around the man, and I’ll enjoy it. Two years later, we’ll have dinner, and I’ll confide in him that I see myself marrying the man. He’ll act surprised, even though there’s nothing surprising about this. I’ll smile and tell him that it probably wouldn’t have worked out between us anyway. He’ll disagree, and he won’t smile back when he disagrees. I’ll find this unfair. I’ll complain to the man about it while he drives me home. I’ll apologize to the friend I said the unkind things about, even though she hadn’t known I said them. Nobody will understand why I’m still talking about any of it.
I watch the film again.
There’s something foreboding about Charlotte’s first glimpse of Joe. It might be how he physically blocks the view of her new home, this beautiful small town on the water. It might be how he’s immediately the center of her world despite doing nothing to deserve it. Charlotte lets him be an obstruction, a distraction. But he has a whole decade on her. But she’s the only one who ever initiates anything. But he should know better. But she should know better.
But he has a whole decade on her. He should know better.
Hidden in a stall, Charlotte is tortured hearing stories of her peers’ hookups in the girls’ bathroom. She wants stories of her own, but she knows better than most people that sex is dangerous. It’s why Mrs. Flax is a single mother. It’s why Charlotte is unlikely to ever meet her father. It’s why they keep having to move again; why Charlotte has never had enough time to find a penpal, let alone a close friend. Seeing her mother as a fallen woman, Charlotte works hard to be her antithesis. Her piety provides a convenient cover for her resentment.
But there’s a change in her after New Year’s. She seems to wake up to the fact—or, maybe, finally lets it register—that she isn’t the one Joe wants. Left alone with Kate for the evening, she pulls on Mrs. Flax’s lingerie and one of her signature polka-dot dresses. She doesn’t fill anything out; she looks like a child, because she is a child. The sisters play-act as Mrs. Flax and Carrie, listening to Peggy Lee’s “Fever” as Charlotte does her own makeup. “How do I look?” Charlotte asks. “Like someone drew all over you,” Kate tells her, the way a little sister would. Charlotte pours herself a glass of red wine, and, once her back is turned, Kate downs several. They walk up to the convent together, giggling and wrapped in blankets. Kate doesn’t care to see the bell tower, so Charlotte leaves her to collect rocks by the river, not realizing that she’s drunk. “I’ll be right back,” Charlotte lies, “so don’t go anywhere.”
Joe knows why Charlotte is there as soon as he sees her, in her polka dots and her poorly applied makeup. He hesitates for a moment, but they’re quickly undressing each other; they both want this. “Oh God, this is real. This is really real,” she thinks as he enters her. The tipsier Flax sister, meanwhile, falls into the river. Her housecoat catches on something under the surface; the combo is too much even for the family’s star swimmer. She screams for help more than once, but Charlotte and Joe are too distracted to hear this. Their encounter is only cut short by the shouting of two nuns, who’ve found Kate face-down in the water. It’s an accident, but it seems to confirm for Charlotte that nothing was worth her recklessness—not even Joe.
She and him sit in silence for much of the night—at the hospital where they have to face Mrs. Flax, in the truck as he drives her home. This time, it’s Charlotte who practically runs away from Joe as she goes inside the house, desperate to get out of her clothes and her smeared lipstick. She makes Kate’s bed, a promise to no one in particular that she’s a good big sister. She eventually joins Joe on the porch swing to sit several feet away from him, still exchanging neither glances nor words. He leaves only once they know that Kate is okay. “You look different,” Charlotte tells him as he gets back into his truck. She seems to finally see a person, not the outline of one. He’s the same man who’d consumed her every thought—consumed her body—just hours ago, and yet he’s not. For the first time, she’s unmoved. “You look beautiful,” he eventually responds, likely just to leave her with the memory. They both know that this will never happen again.
When Mrs. Flax stops by the house to grab clothes for Kate, she and Charlotte scream at each other—both traumatized, both at least a little guilty. Mrs. Flax tells Charlotte to start packing up her things. Charlotte refuses. Charlotte smashes a plate. Charlotte doesn’t want to run away from her problems. Charlotte wishes her mother would stop running away from her problems. This is what Mermaids is actually about.
“How do you feel about this guy?” Mrs. Flax asks once they’ve calmed down.
“I thought I loved him,” Charlotte says.
“That sounds familiar.”
“I thought you were gonna take him away. Did you love my father?”
“Yeah, I did.”
“What was he like?”
“Oh, he was charming and…he made me feel really special…for about a minute-and-a-half. And then he was gone.”
It’s their first real conversation. Mrs. Flax has broken the first half of her motto.
In her epilogue, Charlotte tells us that Kate is unscathed but for slight hearing loss. Charlotte “got quite a reputation for a while,” but seems to enjoy having stories of her own. Joe has moved away from Eastport, apparently sending the occasional postcard. The Flaxes, on the other hand, stay. Mrs. Flax has broken the second half of her motto.
Greek Myths become Charlotte’s new thing. She’d make a terrible nun anyway.
I’ll hate hearing what my Joe does with the girlfriends, what he does to the girlfriends, what the girlfriends do to him. I’ll pretend that I relate to these stories, but really I have none like them. He won’t know this because he’s never asked. When there’s no girlfriend, we’ll go dancing. He’ll kiss me. I’ll kiss him. I’ll stop him. I’ll take him home and make him talk to me for hours because I need to be reassured. He’ll reassure me. He’ll keep kissing me. I’ll keep kissing him. I’ll tell him everything. He’ll tell me everything; it’ll be the first time I learn there was anything to tell. We’ll fall asleep because it’s late and we’re drunk. In the morning, I’ll have a headache. I’ll tell him I have a headache. He’ll tell me that he knows a cure for headaches. The cure will involve me undressing. He’ll undress, too. I’ll hate that it’s daylight. I’ll hate that I’m sober. I’ll tell him I have cramps. They’ll be fake cramps. I’ll want it, but not this version of it. I won’t know how to say that. I won’t know if I’m allowed to say that. I won’t know if saying that means he’ll leave. I won’t want him to leave. I’ll justify doing the thing we shouldn’t using everything said the night before. I’ll insist that we be safe. I’ll have the things we need to be safe. He’ll have a reason not to use them. The reason will confuse me, and I won’t be able to remember it half a decade later. I’ll trust him because of everything said the night before. When it’s over, he’ll embrace me one last time and leave. I’ll tell my housemates, who heard everything anyway. I’ll tell a couple friends, who’ll tell me that they’ve been waiting for this moment. I won’t know how to work the emergency contraception into the story. I’ll leave it out. He’ll ask to see me that evening, and I’ll prepare to do the thing we shouldn’t again. I’ll be surprised when he won’t come past the front door. He’ll ask to go for a walk. I’ll be confused when he tells me that he doesn’t want to date me anymore. I’ll pretend that it’s fine. I’ll go home and wonder which part of my body was the deal breaker, which part of my performance I botched. I’ll enter my relationship with the man with this mindset. I’ll take years to unlearn it. I’ll have to see someone about it. My Joe and I will eventually stop speaking. I’ll run into him on the street. It’ll be six years since I swiveled my chair around in class. I’ll think that he looks different. I’ll still be with the man. He’ll know this, but he won’t ask me how the man’s doing. I’ll tell him how the man’s doing anyway. I’ll feel relieved that I think he looks different. I’ll still miss arguing with him. I’ll feel stupid, in light of everything, that I still miss arguing with him.
I’ll like the grey areas in Mermaids. I’ll like noticing new things—about Charlotte, about Joe, about Charlotte and Joe—with each pass of the film. I’ll like realizing that there’s no real villain in their story, and that neither can claim to be the hero.