‘Mama Bears’: Film Review | SXSW 2022

Emmy-winning director Daresha Kyi’s documentary surveys the impact of a support group for conservative, Christian mothers of LGBTQ children.

In late February, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order that threatened to endanger the lives of transgender youth in that state. Galvanized by the attorney general’s confirmation that “sex-change procedures” constituted “child abuse,” Abbott granted the Department of Family and Protective Services permission to investigate gender-affirming care and parents who supported it for their children. The language of his letter — and the attorney general’s opinion — cast caretakers of trans youth as villains and imperiled the very kids they so desperately want to protect.

Draconian mandates like these serve as distressing reminders of the terror trans Americans routinely face. But they aren’t the only ones. In the thoughtful documentary Mama Bears, Daresha Kyi follows three conservative Christian families at different parts of their journeys to unlearn their homophobia and transphobia. The film’s primary focus is on the Mama Bears, an organization that operates dozens of Facebook support groups for Christian parents who have become advocates for their LGBTQ children. Yet embedded throughout this redemptive narrative are threads of a sadder, more complex one about the dangers LGBTQ children face in trying to live honestly.

Mama Bears

The Bottom Line

Intimate and empathetic.

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Cast: Kimberly Shappley, Kai Shappley, Sara Cunningham, Parker Cunningham, Tammi Terrell Morris, Tenita Lewis Artry, Liz Dyer
Director: Daresha Kyi

1 hour 31 minutes

Mama Bears builds on the foundation laid by Kyi’s Emmy-winning short documentary Trans in America: Texas Strong, an affecting portrait of Kai Shappley, a six-year-old trans girl fighting Texas’ anti-trans bathroom bills with her mother, Kimberly. That film didn’t take any of its 18 minutes for granted, with Kyi steadily unfurling the layers of Kai’s story. It’s because of this precocious child’s unwavering sense of self that her mother was able to open her eyes and begin to question the tenets of her faith.

The opening moments of Mama Bears reuses footage from the short to quickly frame this film’s perspective. Kyi approaches her subjects with a sensitive curiosity. She is not interested in vilifying these parents, nor does she attempt to construct unrealistically sympathetic portraits. Mama Bears charts a different course, one in which adults take accountability for their past thoughts and actions. What events forced these parents to change? What conversations needed to take place? Which are still taking place? How do they impact the relationship between parent and child? These are just some of the questions driving the doc.

Interviews with Kai and Kimberly paint an intense image of the violent undercurrents of Kai’s early years, when the young girl asserted her identity despite her mother’s protestations. Kimberly recollects the fervent prayers, search for conversion therapy and corporal punishment she inflicted remorsefully. The day that Kai prayed for death jolted Kimberly out of her stupor. “I have to hold firm in the truth that she was fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, and she was born transgender,” Kimberly says of the moment she realized her faith and science did not have to conflict.

The other families in Mama Bears undergo a similar reckoning. In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Sara Cunningham struggled to accept that her son, Parker, was gay. Their story bears the scars of delayed acceptance, too. They both speak from their perspective, with Sara candidly recalling the depths of her denial, which drove her to ask a 15-year-old Parker “not to be gay.” “I’m trying not to be,” he tearily retorted. Their reconciliatory moment doesn’t happen for a few more years, when Parker at 21, can demand the support he needs: “I sucked it up for 21 years being your son, I need you to suck it up and be my mom,” he recalls telling her.

“I need you to suck it up and be my mom” are not words the film’s third protagonist, Tammi Morris, ever says to her mother, but it’s hard not to think of them when the two share the screen. Adding Morris’ story is a constructive choice: Tammi’s connection to Mama Bears is looser, and unlike the other featured subjects, she is both gay and Black. But her relationship to her mother — which stagnates as the two try to find common ground — prevents the film from sentimentalizing these journeys. Although Tammi’s mother insists she loves Tammi, she visibly struggles with accepting her daughter’s sexuality. And Tammi, who has finally started living the life she envisioned for herself, is hurt by her mother’s reluctant embrace.

The three families in Mama Bears provide a kaleidoscopic lens for understanding the tensions between faith, gender and sexuality. In many ways, Kyi’s movie is like a slightly more optimistic version of Daniel Karslake’s 2019 Tribeca documentary For They Know Not What They Do, which followed four families’ tortured journeys toward accepting their kids. Although neither film is meant to be prescriptive, the two reach similar conclusions about supporting LGBTQ people. It’s only when the parents abandon their egos and hush their anxious voices that they can begin to truly hear and — at last — take care of their kids.

Full credits

Venue: SXSW Film Festival (Documentary Feature Competition)
Cast: Kimberly Shappley, Kai Shappley, Sara Cunningham, Parker Cunningham, Tammi Terrell Morris, Tenita Lewis Artry, Liz Dyer
Director: Daresha Kyi
Producers: Daresha Kyi, Laura Tatham
Executive producers: Sally Jo Fifer, Lois Vossen, Patty Quillin, Scotch Ellis Loring, Chris Panizzon, Kathryn M. Moseley, Tiffany Boyle, Elsa Ramo
Cinematographer: Amy Bench
Editors: Hajer Salem, Kelly Creedon
Music: Gil Talmi
Sales: Daresha Kyi, Mama Bears Documentary LLC

1 hour 31 minutes