An emotional documentary that focuses on women who have their faith confronted by their children’s identity…and ultimately strengthened
For many American evangelicals, the dual concepts of faith and family often come mutually tied as a primary concern. But what are families to do when the strident belief of their theology comes into direct conflict with the identity of the children? There are certainly no easy answers or paths that come from this conflict, and this tension is the central subject of a new documentary from Daresha Kyi, Mama Bears. By telling three distinct but emotionally interconnected stories, Kyi is able to explore many facets of the complicated ways that individuals’ sexuality and gender identities collide with deeply held faith beliefs, and ways that three women do the hard work of not feeling compelled to dismiss one fully for the other.
Each of these three stories are unique in their resolutions and focuses, but all are rooted in a very similar tension, and in amazing stories of transformation and restoration. One focuses on Kimberly Shappley, whose relationship with her seven-year-old trans daughter Kai moves Kimberly into defending the rights of all trans people across Texas. Another focuses on Sara Cunningham, whose relationship with her gay son and the pain she perceives she caused led her to create the “Free Mom Hugs” movement as a means of offering a supporting, affirming ear to LGBTQ+ folks who have become estranged from their family. And one story focuses on Tammi Terrell Morris, whose mother still struggles with accepting her daughter’s identity as a lesbian, but never struggles to love her.
These three tracks get more or less equal time paid to them, but don’t exactly hold identical emotional impact. This is partially by the nature of each woman’s journey’s focus. Kimberly is advocating for safety and social justice, fighting against Texas’ “trans bathroom bill” in 2018. Sara’s track is more concerned with reconciliation and inner/personal peace, as she attempts to be the mother to those who feel they have lost theirs. And Tammi’s journey is mostly an inner testimony, walking through the path her life has taken her on to get to a place of personal strength and self esteem, but has caused tension between her and her mother. These different levels of engagement highlight how multi-faceted these deconstructions can take shape to be.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the documentary, other than the women themselves, is the vulnerable moments that Kyi and her crew are able to capture. At one point, Kai asks her mother if she can go to a sleepover with a friend, which Kimberly has to explain with care and grace why precisely she is concerned about that option. Kai isn’t to be deterred however, refusing to believe her identity as trans should have any impact on her ability to live a full life as a kid. You can see Kimberly’s struggle to fluctuate between wanting to protect her daughter from potential harm and hurt, but also being inspired by her daughter’s uncompromising spirit. At one point she describes Kai as the most strong-willed person she knows.
It is refreshing to also witness women who, when confronted with a challenge to the narrow theology they have been exposed to, choose to do the work, diving into both scripture and their own faith practices to deconstruct their beliefs, only to rebuild something newer and stronger. They refuse to allow their relationships with their children to be a stumbling block to their faith, but rather see it as a means to grow closer to their children and their God.
Throughout its runtime, Mama Bears is rivetingly emotional, with several moments that will draw tears from even the most cynical. There is something undeniably beautiful about the strength of these women to dig deep and pull something new out. But the film never feels cheap or exploitative, not manipulating your emotions but providing a window into a world of deeply felt love and conviction.
Near the end of the film, Cunningham argues that when she sees the Mama Bear movement grow and evolve that it reminds her of the early church in the Book of Acts, how it expanded based on the strength of their witness and the loving means by which they lived their life. This reorientation is at the heart of what these women have experienced, to reimagine what church looks like outside the confines of rejection. By reclaiming communities based in both faith and love, they are able to live more fully into both faith and family, and in turn create a better witness.