As Amy Schumer reminded us in her “Last Fuckable Day” sketch, growing older in Hollywood is an unpleasant business. At a certain point, usually around the dreaded age of 30, an actress’s options start to shrink, limited to roles defined by some ancillary relationship to the film’s protagonist: the wife, the mean boss, and of course, THE MOM.
Some of the latest victims: 32-year-old Mila Kunis, the lovable narcissist of That ‘70s Show, and 36-year-old Kristen Bell, the whip-smart detective heroine of Veronica Mars, both doing hard time right now in the cast of a film called Bad Moms (ugh). Susan Sarandon, the feminist iconoclast of Thelma and Louise, has been reduced to a string of kooky-yet-still–vaguely-fuckable grandmas, while Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts, and a horrendous wig joined forces for the momschlock atrocity Mother’s Day earlier this year. All too often, once you’re an onscreen mother, all other personality traits are subsumed within that identity. Moms become a series of tired stereotypes — the worrier, the scold, the nurturer, the neurotic — and the actresses playing them tend to shrink once they step into their comfortable-mom loafers. As a rule, the onscreen momosphere is a pretty barren landscape, albeit one that most women are forced to pass through at some point. (TV, as usual, tends to be better than Hollywood at fostering nuanced roles for grown women.)
Yet Winona Ryder’s role in Stranger Things — Matt and Ross Duffer’s excellent new Netflix series — is the rare instance where playing a mother feels liberating rather than constricting. The eight-episode series follows a small town that starts to be encroached on by malevolent forces, replete with homages to Stephen King, Spielberg, and the rich world of ’80s sci-fi and teen movies. Winona Ryder plays Joyce Byers, a single mother whose youngest son, Will, gets kidnapped while out for a bike ride, a crime somehow connected to all the other strange goings-on in the town. Casting Gen-X golden girl Winona as The Mom is more than mere nostalgia fodder: Rather, it’s striking how subversive the role feels, both in Winona’s career and in the scope of the acting landscape today. “I get sent a lot of scripts where you’re just the mom,” Ryder told the Times recently. “And you think, could I do something with this? Is there a way to make this interesting? But in the end you think, no.”
In Stranger Things, Ryder brings her trademark oddball intensity to a role that might at first appear to be very unlike the ones she grew up playing. Throughout the series, we follow Joyce as she hunts for her missing son, both in this realm and beyond. She believes he is alive and in danger, and she is determined to track him down at any cost, no matter how nuts everyone thinks she is. But like the teenage misfits that made her a star — Beetlejuice’s Lydia Deetz, Heathers’ Veronica Sawyer — Joyce is an outsider, a little unhinged (it is mentioned at one point that she has a history of mental illness), alienated from those around her. At times, Joyce adheres to the standard sci-fi mom tropes (lots of shades of E.T.) and she spends a good amount of her time weeping and screaming “WILL!!!!!” at the top of her lungs, as you would if your son was plucked out of thin air and then began communicating with you through electrical signals. Yet Winona is such a naturally intelligent and self-aware actor, and the deliberately campy and meta elements are so skillfully integrated within the series, that she manages to be subversive even when she’s doing the same panicked mom routine we’ve seen a thousand times before.
The series highlight comes in episode three, when Will starts communicating with her through a string of Christmas lights. Tucked in a corner, cradling a bundle of lights in her arms like a baby as she waits for her son to reach out to her, Ryder could almost be back in a Tim Burton movie, so oddly macabre and whimsical is the situation. Yet the scene also takes her to new emotional heights as an actress. Her trembling gasps of relief and delight when the lights start to flash is among the most powerful and authentic depictions of maternal love and loss I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Just as Winona brings sparkle to the onscreen momosphere, playing a mom also feels like a major evolution for Winona, a long-overdue reinvention within a career that long felt frozen in amber. We still think of Winona the way she was when she was a teenager and twentysomething — the goth, pixie-cut dream-girl — destined never to grow up. Her decade-long hiatus from the zeitgeist following her shoplifting scandal and tabloid flameout served only to reaffirm her Peter Pan quality in the cultural imagination; she hasn’t had a lead role since 1999’s Girl Interrupted.
“I started acting so young, I secretly wanted to be older,” Winona recently told Time magazine. “I know there’s a lot of conversations right now about ageism, and I know a lot of actresses who have a tough time, and I’ve gotten offered those mom parts. But you can make something of it. For me, I’m finally getting to play my own age, and it’s liberating. I would not want to go back to playing the ingénue.”
Stranger Things marks the first time we’ve seen mature Winona onscreen in a leading role, and it feels like exactly the right role to usher her into a new stage of her career. While Joyce is definitely part of the Winona lineage, Joyce isn’t a cool uncool girl, like the characters that made her an icon. She’s schlubby, frazzled, and unironic. She has bad hair, no arsenal of pithy comebacks or sarcastic shield to mask what she’s feeling inside. Her loneliness isn’t an affectation, there’s nothing wistful or romantic about her sadness. And yet she is, undeniably, a grown-up. Her motivations — the desire to protect her children; a deep, primal sense of loss; a life lived on the margins, struggling to get by — are the stuff of real adulthood, being portrayed by a real adult. It looks good on her. Although, then again, what doesn’t?