One of the most accomplished and underrated actresses of our time, Toni Collette has manifested a career focusing on independent features. Time and again, the actress proves herself a capable, dynamic artist. Collette has a knack for showing fluidity in her expression. And remains completely engrossed by her character. Each completely different from her last. In her latest feature, Hereditary, Collette is a grief-stricken mother conjuring repressed emotions and spirits simultaneously. But this isn’t her first turn as a mother in the heat of conflict. Of her extensive filmography, it is her notable roles as mothers and maternal figures that continue to astonish, demonstrating the range of motherhood. Here, we’ll take a look at four of her most distinct maternal roles.
The Sixth Sense (1999)
Undoubtedly one of Collette’s iconic early roles, The Sixth Sense catapulted her to critical acclaim and her first (and definitely not last) Academy Award nomination. Haley Jole Osment and Bruce Willis lead the film with overt intensity. But Collette’s performance of a young, single mother is packed with the same emotional punch that drives the film’s connection to the empathetic audience. Collette, here, assumes the role of cautionary protector. Confused and frustrated, much of Collette’s role stems from struggling to connect with and understand her son’s pain and experiences. Summing up her emotions in a scene at the dinner table, Collette’s Lynn Spear says, “I’m so tired Cole. I’m tired in my body. I’m tired in my mind. I’m tired in my heart.” Collette adds a complicated layer to the exhausting role of motherhood. Coming to terms with her son’s ‘gift,’ the apex of her building frustration and release is masterfully portrayed in the car scene. It’s an intense moment of reflection and acceptance. With Collette’s talent on display.
Little Miss Sunshine (2006)
Less than a decade later, Collette would assume another maternal role as Sheryl Hoover in Little Miss Sunshine. The film was a huge a hit. With much of the credit going to the performances of the ensemble cast. Each member fills their respective role to the nth degree. For Collette, this role meant being the glue that kept her dysfunctional family together, despite their antics. At every turn, Collette delivers nothing short of empathy and consolation. While protective of her daughter, Olive, Sheryl Hoover is also a mother who will let her daughter’s ambitions and dreams become reality. Even if it means driving cross country with the horn blaring. At a pinnacle moment when her husband and son are overly protective, wishing Olive not to compete in a girls’ beauty competition, Sheryl stands by her young daughter, supporting her decision. “Olive is who she is. She has worked so hard. She has poured everything into this. We can’t just take it away from her.” Motherhood is a constant convoluted state of battling decisions and emotions. Here, Collette, as she does throughout the film, chooses to protect her daughter by allowing her the final decision, standing by her no matter what.
The Way Way Back (2013)
In 2013, I saw The Way Way Back with my parents. It was the summer after high school, and here was this indie film that brought Collette and Steve Carrell back together in the near exact antithesis of their respective Little Miss Sunshine roles. What’s so profound here with Collette’s performance as a mother is her quiet nature, and lack of clarity. Schmoozed completely by Carrell’s Trent, Collette’s Pam is unable to see her boyfriend’s manipulation. She finds a way to conflate arrogant comments with constructive criticism. And along the way, her son veers to create his own path; detaching from his mother. The decisions made by Collette are of a timid mother, struggling with how to raise an introverted son while providing a possible male role model and thereby a personal relationship for her to thrive. All the way grappling with her own self-esteem as a desirable woman and mother to her son. There’s this glossy perfection she hopes will manifest itself if she brings two completely different men together. It’s one of my personal favorite performances by Collette, giving a portrayal so different from the confident mothers she’s played. Here, we find Pam stuck. But when she finally, and quietly decides to join her son in the way way back, you know it is a decision that will stick.
And now the ‘mother’ role of Collette’s career thus far. The actress’s turn in Hereditary is probably her most intense to date. In the film, Collette isn’t just serving audiences the next performance in her range of maternal characters. She is fully immersed in darkness. Collette throws herself into the role of Annie. With every painful movement and decision she makes, maternal grief manifests itself as the specter that simply won’t abandon her. You might find yourself thinking there is no way that Collette could not be more emotionally exhausted than she is in one specific scene. Yet, the entirety of the film Collette’s character smokes, then burns, until she fully combusts. Here is a mother wrought with grief and bound by guilt. Withholding then willing, Collette shows her range of motherhood in these two hours. Concentrating specifically on the aspect of grief, we watch her unravel; literally pulled apart by her own devices. It is a garish part of motherhood that seldom is the main focus of an entire two-plus-hour picture. But here is Collette, convulsing, screaming, and yelling as any mother in grief would be allowed to do. If at times terrifying, it is only because these are the demons we hide in plain sight.
Toni Collette has been acting for nearly three decades and in that time has shown audiences a wide range of maternal roles. Never repeating herself, the actress absorbs each new character. Creating a completely unique, distinct state of motherhood every time. Her characters and their approach to motherhood range from distant to possessive. There is complicated thought in every silence, and each movement is a calculated act of protection or repulsion. There is not one, single right way to portray motherhood. With Collette’s filmography, that very idea is realized to the fullest.
For more of Collette’s maternal range, check out these titles: Krampus, Glassland, A Long Way Down, Fright Night, About A Boy, and United States of Tara.