Unhook the Stars (1997): Nick Cassavetes (Son of John Cassavetes) Feature Debut, Starring Gena Rowlands (his Mother)

The son of John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands, Nick Cassavetes gives the symbolic title of this chapter, Fathers and Sons, a literal meaning.

His feature debut, Unhook the Stars (1996), celebrated the acting grandeur of his mother, and his sophomore effort, She’s So Lovely (1997), paid tribute to his iconoclastic father who wrote the screenplay in the 1970s.

As if to compensate for all the abused and damaged, emotionally intense women Rowlands had played in his father’s films, Nick has constructed a star vehicle that showcases her warmth and generosity. Rowlands plays an aging but still beautiful widow, who suddenly realizes that life goes on and she can’t rely on anyone but herself. The narrative premise may not be new, but the old-fashioned, sweet nature of the tale, co-written by Cassavetes and Helen Caldwell, defied all fashions of indie cinema.

Mildred is a financially secure widow whose husband has left her a comfortable house, shared with her rebellious teenage daughter, Ann Mary (Moira Kelly). She gives the impression of an accommodating woman who has devoted all her life to pleasing others. After yet another argument, Ann Mary takes off with her boyfriend, leaving Mildred alone in the oversized house.

But unexpected company appears in the person of Monica (Marisa Tomei), a working-class mom whose physically abusive husband departs, leaving her with the responsibility of raising their young son, J.J. Mildred takes an immediate liking to J.J., soon becoming his surrogate mother, picking him from kindergarten, babysitting, teaching him language and art history.

Nick provides a more benevolent view of suburban life and lonely widows than that seen in most American films, such as Douglas Sirk’s melodrama, All That Heaven Allows.

Accepting her new existence with dignity and pride, Mildred forms a new friendship with Monica, and even engages in a romantic affair with Big Tommy (Gerard Depardieu), a French Canadian truck driver. Nick tackles some taboos in our culture, like the notion that parents are supposed to like their children equally; Mildred has no qualms about favoring her son.