With its inspiring stories of love and acceptance, director Daresha Kyi‘s documentary “Mama Bears” embraces positivity over controversy. The film focuses on two women (Sara Cunningham and Kimberly Shappley) who are part of the tens of thousands of mothers across the U.S. who make up the online “mama bear” community, a group of mostly conservative, religious ladies who fully accept their LGBTQ+ children.
Documenting Sara and Kimberly’s personal journeys through home movies, photos, and lots of social media posts, Kyi explores how these women’s love for their families has challenged — and changed — their outlook and beliefs.
It’s a complex issue, but the film avoids too many hot-button discussions on the topic. It’s upsetting how religions manipulate the Bible to justify hatred and discrimination, and preaching that being gay is an abomination or a choice is a dangerous message that hurts and destroys those growing up in religious homes and cities. Many of these mama bears are ostracized by their churches, communities, and sometimes even their own families.
Instead of focusing on these negative and controversial aspects, Kyi chooses a kinder, gentler approach, which may be a wise decision when trying to influence public opinions and encourage those set in their ways to think outside the box.
That isn’t to say that the film isn’t gut wrenching at times. Some of these parents believed for years that their gay child would burn in hell, or thought of themselves as failures as Christians because they had a homosexual child. The pain is real, and it’s hard to hear it.
What’s refreshing to see are the interviews with kids who either have a mama bear as a parent or have been encouraged or supported by one of the members. Listening to Shappley’s transgender daughter Kai speak with such confidence about who they are is eye-opening, especially when her child was born a boy but insisted since 4 years old that she was a girl despite being punished extensively. Even after suffering for years, Kai never backed down from who she is, and now she has the loving support of a mom with a changed outlook.
Equally uplifting are the stories of so many mama bears who choose their children over their church, and their ability and willingness to see things differently. They’re judged and condemned, but it’s beautiful to watch as these moms learn acceptance towards their own family while also gaining sympathy toward others. The complete turnaround some of these mothers have made is inspiring, and their devotion to fighting for the civil rights of those in the LGBTQ+ community is admirable on so many levels.
“Mama Bears” is positive to a fault, but it’s difficult to criticize a documentary that’s as uplifting as this. The subjects are interesting and their stories compelling, and the film is a reminder how a simple act of kindness (like the group’s “Free Mom Hugs” campaign) can make a world of difference in the life of an LGBTQ+ person who is confused, suffering, or feels alone.