“Politically incorrect,” “cruel and humiliating” and “a piece of work” are some of the ways friends and relatives describe Mildred Kirschenbaum, the sharp-tongued star of her daughter’s first feature documentary, “Look at Us Now, Mother!” Directed by Gayle Kirschenbaum, the film chronicles the two women’s difficult relationship — sometimes abusive, sometimes tender — and their attempt to reach détente through therapy.
“I feel like I was tasked to make this film and help people,” Gayle said in a recent interview. “My motivation was to go on this journey with my mother, and get to forgiveness — and to show other people how to get there.”
Gayle, who grew up in Long Island’s Five Towns, is a filmmaker known for turning her camera on herself. Her 2004 short, “A Dog’s Life: A Dogamentary,” focused on the pet Shih Tzu that helped fill a void in her life as a single woman. In “My Nose,” Gayle attempted to end her mother’s constant nagging to get a nose job by agreeing to visit several plastic surgeons. When the film played at festivals, Gayle realized that a star — her outspoken and cantankerous mom — had been born.
“I thought: Aha,” Gayle said. “I knew my mom is funny. Not when I was growing up! But she is now.”
Mildred steals the show in “Look at Us Now, Mother!” Reigning over the mah jongg table at a Boca Raton retirement center, she fires off wisecracks like a female Don Rickles, most of them aimed at her daughter. Once their counseling sessions begin, Mildred proves unsurprisingly resistant to the touchy-feely language of modern therapy.
“Is anything coming up for you?” Gayle says during an emotionally symbolic moment. Mildred retorts, “My Chinese food.”
When Mildred appears at screenings of the film, “Some people have unleashed on her,” Gayle said. “But I jump in, because I realize these people have their own issues. After the Q&A’s, it becomes a love fest, a hug fest and a therapy session. People are hurting, and they don’t want to be in pain anymore.”
“Look at Us Now, Mother!” opens Friday, April 8, at the Village East Cinema in Manhattan and on Long Island on May 6.