The Very Complex Motherhood In ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’

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Like many avid Tilda Swinton fans, I have been awaiting the release of her newest film We Need To Talk About Kevin. Based on the 2003 novel by author and Orange Prize Winner Lionel Shriver, the film aims to document the deep complexities of motherhood — specifically a woman who was never able to rise to the task in the case of her son.

Eva, played by Swinton, finds herself nearing her late 30s with a husband she couldn’t be more in love with. They consider having children, something that she is more or less indifferent to but that she senses that her husband very much wants. She appeases him, and from the moment she is told that she is pregnant, Eva doesn’t sense herself warming to the idea as her female peers have done. She experiences no euphoria from her natural birth, nor can she get her son, Kevin, to breastfeed. He cries nonstop, scaring away babysitters and screaming at her slightest touch. As he grows, he doesn’t hit many of the other milestones of other children, delaying speaking, potty training, nor exhibiting any interest in other children. He also cultivates a very deep disdain for his mother as he grows.

Much later, Kevin commits a massacre at his high school much in the same vein as the Columbine High School shootings, which causes Eva to reflect on her relationship or perhaps lack thereof with her son.

In anticipation of the film, I recently read the book which was lent to me by Jennifer Wright over at The Gloss. Aside from the deeply rich and nuanced writing, Shriver succeeds at canvassing a topic that is often riddled with fallacies. mythologies, and sheer cultural lies: motherhood. Shriver allows her readers to understand a woman who struggles to mother her son, both before his attack on his high school and after.

In one of my favorite passages of the book, Eva considers the future of her second child, Celia. Much different from her son Kevin, Celia is frightened of all things and eager to please. In considering the daughter’s future, Shriver gives us the voice of a mother who not only feels helpless towards what her daughter will eventually become, but also feels resigned to it:

“She was only six, but I already feared that she would never be beautiful — that she was unlikely to carry herself with much authority. She had your mouth, too wide for her small head; her lips were thin and bloodless. Her tremulous countenance encouraged a carefulness around her that was wearing. That hair, so silken and wispy, was destined to grow lank, its gold to give way to a dingier blond by her teens. Besides, isn’t true beauty a tad enigmatic? And Celia was too artless to imply concealment. She had an available face, and there is some implicitly uninteresting about the look of a person who will tell you whatever you want to know. Why, already I could see it. She would grow into the kind of adolescent who conceives a doomed crush on the president of the student council, who doesn’t know she’s alive. Celia would always give herself away cheaply. Later, she would move in — too young — with an older man who would abuse her generous nature, who would leave her for a more buxom woman who knows how to dress. But at least she would always come home to us for Christmas, and had she opportunity, she would make a far finer mother than I ever was.”

We Need to Talk About Kevin is compromised of moments similar to these in which Eva is confronted with both her children as people, as well as extensions of herself and her shortcomings as a parent.

At present, the film is set to come to the United States later this year.

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