Trading Mom (1994): Be Careful What You Wish For

Barely gracing the inside of cinemas, this Sissy Spacek star vehicle has long been consigned to obscurity. Dave finds out why.

“We used to tease my mother that we were going to trade her in,” remembers Tia Brelis about the inspiration for her mother’s book, The Mummy Market. “Then, over the course of a few weeks in 1965, she began to weave it into a novel.” [1]

A divorced mother of four herself, Nancy Brelis certainly touched the lives of a whole generation of children when her tale of three kids who wish for a new mom hit the libraries of America in the late ‘60s. The work also proved to be an ongoing mission for her daughter to turn it into a movie someday – although when you’re married to a high-powered Universal executive, Casey Silver, it certainly makes it easier. However, it was producer Raffaella De Laurentiis who she approached to finance the $4million picture back in 1990. While it represented an achievement for Brelis Jr. to get the greenlight on bringing her mother’s book to the screen – as director, no less – it was a deal tainted by sadness, as she explained to the Los Angeles Times:

“My mom got to see several drafts of the script before she died [of lymphoma cancer, aged sixty-one]. I just wish she could be here to celebrate it today. You know, it was her first book. I did, though, get all of her grandchildren in the film; bit parts, cameos, but they’re in there. It was my gift to her.” [2]

Nancy Brelis’ original tome had the kids visiting the titular Mummy Market because they had no mother and were instead looked after by an unsympathetic housekeeper called The Gloom. For Trading Mom‘s screenplay, Tia Brelis tweaked it so that the kids, Elizabeth (Anna Chlumsky), Jeremy (Aaron Michael Metchik) and Harry (Asher Metchik), were motivated to exchange their real single parent (Sissy Spacek) because she’s a workaholic who they feel doesn’t give them the attention they deserve. Of course, they quickly discover that the alternatives are far from ideal. The market allows them three tokens that can be exchanged for a series of potential new mums, but each successive auditionee (Spacek in multiple roles) is as equally unsuited as the last. From the haughty, Marlene Dietrich-inspired cigarette smoker, to the despotic scout master, all these maternally devoid monstrosities are good for is showing the children how irreplaceable their biological mamma really is.

The focus of an Entertainment Tonight set visit that aired in early November ‘92, Trading Mom wrapped at a similar time, premiering the following August close to where it was shot in Richmond, Virginia, at an event designed to raise money for a cause that was close to Spacek’s heart, Benefit Camp Holiday Trails. Mooted to make a theatrical bow that fall, Trimark seemed a little uneasy in respect to its potential, test screening it in November ’93 under its original title, ‘The Mommy Market’, and then again in Austin, Texas the following March.

One reason for the delay can certainly be directed at the looming figure of Rob Reiner’s picture, North (1994), which concerned itself with the similarly themed tale of an eleven-year-old boy who becomes burned out by his parents’ continuous quarrelling, so he embarks on a road trip to find some new folks. However, made for a whopping budget of $40million [3], the studio showed a similar reluctance when it came to big screen confidence (and for good reason I might add), so Brelis’ film beat it to the punch by two months – albeit via a noticeably prudent opening on only forty screens.

By the end of ’94, Trading Mom was given the indignity of featuring on Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s Worst of the Year episode. It was a Siskel pick, and he labelled it, “Depressing… Too dreary and lame to be any fun, and Spacek’s many roles are disturbing and awkward.” Similarly, in Leonard Maltin’s TV & Movie Guide, he pulled out the adage of how a movie left sitting on a shelf for a year before its release tells you all you need to know about its quality. [4]

Thankfully, Trading Mom‘s home video debut brought about some timely – and fair – re-evaluation, namely from Michael H. Price’s dependable column on the week’s rental releases. “This was kept hidden from all but the most obsessive moviegoers,” he argued, before concluding how “Video should find an appreciative audience for this minor gem with plenty of sparkle.” [5]

Trading Mom is unquestionably a flawed movie. Exasperating with its crayon-drawn caricatures, yet punctuated by moments of heart-warming contentment, especially during an uplifting final reel that certainly rights a few wrongs. That said, it is a little too quirky to harness broad appeal, which would explain Trimark’s indifference to it in the first place.

[1] Parenthood Takes Beating in Two Upcoming Projects by Susan Spillman, News-Press, Fort Myers, Florida, 21st November 1993.
[2] Devoted Daughter Keeps Vow with ‘Trading Mom’ by Judy Brennan, The Los Angeles Times. 7th May 1994.
[3] North pulled back only $7million at the U.S. box office and received six Razzie nominations for its trouble.
[4] Trading Mom Review by Leonard Maltin, Maltin’s TV & Movie Guide.
[5] Sleeper Movie by Michael H. Price, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 1st October 1994.

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