Meryl Streep is the kind of mother most of us envy: four children, three Oscars, dozens of films–and only one husband. Like every other famously successful woman, she’s often asked how she does it. For instance, how did she manage the trade-offs between her success and the needs of young kids? And while she usually responds to that tedious, somewhat sexist question with humility, noting the privileges of her line of work, her ability to balance it all seems effortless.
So there’s rich irony in the fact that so many of the mothers Streep has played over the past 40 years are pretty much the opposite of balanced. Their decisions are fraught and their mistakes heavily penalized. From Sophie’s Choice to A Cry in the Dark to The Devil Wears Prada, her characters raise uncomfortable, complicated questions about motherhood and our expectations of women.
Streep’s latest mom role, as Ricki Rendazzo in Ricki and the Flash, has a light, Mamma Mia! vibe, but it still hits all those hot buttons. Ricki abandons her three children to pursue her dream of becoming a rock star. Years later, she’s working as a grocery clerk by day and singing cover songs with her band, the Flash, in a local bar. She looks happy onstage. But when her eldest child, Julie (played by Streep’s real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), has a crisis, Ricki goes home to face her kids and her ex-husband (Kevin Kline).
Directed by Jonathan Demme, the frolicking Ricki won’t win Streep another Oscar, but Ricki herself has a lot in common with yet another Meryl mom, Joanna from 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Streep won her first Oscar for her portrayal of a young mom who leaves her son with his dad (Dustin Hoffman) for more than a year because she is losing her mind as a housewife. As she puts it, “I have gone away because I must find something interesting to do for myself in the world. Everybody has to, and so do I. Being your mommy was one thing, but there are other things too.” When she returns, she finds she can’t get back what she gave up and is judged harshly. Still, she doesn’t regret finding a career.
Neither does Ricki. And while things do get sentimental in Diablo Cody’s screenplay–as any movie with a wedding scene tends to–Ricki doesn’t cut her rocker’s braids. In fact, from the first scene it’s clear that singing is this woman’s ultimate joy and calling–even if she makes no money and despite the sacrifices she’s made. In a memorable moment, Ricki defends her place onstage, raging against the idea that it’s O.K. for men to leave their children to be musicians, but if a mother messes up at home, she’s “a monster.”
It’s hard to believe that 36 years after Kramer vs. Kramer, the parameters for women are still so inflexible. But when was the last time you heard a celebrity mom admit that there are times when her work does come first? Maybe that’s why Ricki’s time with the Flash feels escapist, even a little subversive. Watching a 66-year-old Streep look great in leather pants, singing Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen songs like a pro and pausing to kiss her lead guitarist (1980s heartthrob Rick Springfield), you couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to keep her in the kitchen, not even her kids.
This appears in the August 17, 2015 issue of TIME.