Winona Ryder as Mermaid Immaculata

In the 1990 film, Mermaids, Winona Ryder plays teen Charlotte Flax and believes she is impregnated when she shares a drink from the same thermos with the bus driver she’s in love with. It’s the 60s and the end of ” Camelot. ” She makes a doctor’s appointment under Joan of Arc and is relieved and flustered at her womb, minus one water-walking savior. 

Charlotte narrates the film in a confessional style as a faux Catholic. She is actually a Jewish American moving around the United States with her cheeky glamourous mother, played by Cher, and her sister, competitive swimmer, Kate, played by a pre-pastel goth Christina Ricci. They settle in a Massachusetts port town. 

In tandem with its overindulgent water imagery, the chemistry and physical likeness between the three female characters is terse and tender. There is a bedazzled mermaid tail, a homemade under-the-sea phantasmagoric for the sister, and many grotesque mother/daughter scream storms. Throw in a little bit of altar guilt, and you have a quirky cinematic backdrop for a Bildungsroman. The film was adapted from the 1986 novel of the same name by Patty Dann.

Curiously enough, the center of Charlotte’s affections is played by Michael Earl Schoeffling. He also plays the brooding jock/love interest of Molly Ringwald in John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles. There might be a Byronic hero pattern here! Schoeffling left Hollywood to become a carpenter like Jesus. His character in Mermaids, Joe, not only drives Charolotte’s school bus but also lives at the local convent and rings the church bell every night to shuffle the nuns to their next activity. The nuns think highly of him, and Charlotte observes him like a candle drip. 

When her little sister almost drowns because Charlotte is losing her virginity to Joe in the bell tower and not paying attention, the characters must reckon with beauty, loss, and the inevitable threat of small-town slut shaming. All is well when her sister miraculously defeats death, and Charlotte makes peace when Joe leaves the bell tower for sunny California to open a nursery. Perhaps the most looming image is Charlotte sitting on the sea rocks, not as a siren but furiously contemplating the divinity of love and black leather boots when everyone’s wearing saddle shoes and kitten heels. Charlotte forsakes Catholicism for Greek mythos to the continuous eye rolls from her mother.


Monique Quintana is a Xicana from Fresno, CA, and the author of Cenote City (Clash Books, 2019). Her work has appeared in Pank, Wildness, Lost Balloon, and other publications. You can read her book reviews and artist interviews at Luna Luna Magazine, where she is a contributing editor. She has been supported by Yaddo, the Sundress Academy of the Arts, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, and the Community of Writers. You can find her at moniquequintana.com.

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