The Meddler

Susan Sarandon and a strong cast turn this mother-daughter drama into something special

Susan Sarandon, left, and Rose Byrne in 'The Meddler.' Credit: Sony Pictures Classics

Susan Sarandon is a star shining on her highest beams. Only a fool would want to miss those fireworks. So check out The Meddler, in which Sarandon dives into her juiciest role in years as Marnie Minervini, a New Jersey widow who travels to Los Angeles to be near her screenwriter daughter Lori (the ever-amazing Rose Byrne). Why? The title would indicate it's to meddle, which translates into calls, texts, showing up unannounced, snooping into Lori's browsing history and co-opting her friends. But the gifted writer-director Lorene Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) is after something far less clichéd and more nuanced than the anatomy of a bossypants.

Carving her script out of her relationship with her own mother, Scafaria turns The Meddler into a hilarious and heartfelt  tribute to mothering in the sense of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Marnie can be irritating, for sure, but she's also force of  nurture. Marnie doesn't know how to channel her grief for the man she loved — she keeps putting off what to do with his ashes. What she does do is send her feelings outward. When her daughter insists on setting boundaries, the generous-to-a-fault Marnie looks for others in need.

There's Freddy (Jarrod Carmichael), the Apple store genius she  befriends, and Jillian (Cecily Strong), the lesbian mom whose wedding Marnie plans and pays for without quite remembering Jillian's name. Marnie is clueless about herself until, well, she isn't. And watching Sarandon chart Marnie's slow-growing self awareness is a thing of beauty. You might think that the new man in her life, a chicken-raising, ex-cop named Zipper, smacks of sitcom convenience. But wait till you see the great J.K. Simmons inhabit the role, which he does with a sexy charm and tenderness that in no way hides Zipper's emotional bruises.

Cheers to Scafaria, who admirably refuses to tie things up with pretty bows. She lets the pain seep in. You see it in Lori, Scafaria's stand-in, as she deals with being dumped by her movie-star boyfriend (Jason Ritter) and her own still-raw grief for the father she adored. The reliably expert Byrne plays it tough and true. But The Meddler belongs to Sarandon, a famously no-bull actress who digs in deep, showing us how moms aren't one thing, they're all things. How else can they make you laugh from love and cry from crazy? The Meddler knows how. Listen up.