At the start of The Princess Diaries, 15-year-old Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway) knows who she is. Our frizzy-haired heroine travels the hills of San Francisco on her Razor scooter, content with going through her teen years unnoticed — that is, until her grandmother, Queen Clarisse Renaldi (Julie Andrews), pays her a visit. The Queen of Genovia plucks awkward Mia from high school obscurity and throws her into the life of a princess. But as Clarisse teaches Mia the ways of royal life, molding her into a straight-haired, perfectly postured vision of princess-hood, it becomes all the more clear who the true hero of this tale is. Yes, Queen Clarisse is elegant, unflappable and worldly in all the ways a stylish European grandmother should be, but it’s Mia’s cool mom, Helen Thermopolis (Caroline Goodall), who’s the grounding force of the entire film.
Helen has built a spectacular life for herself and her daughter in San Francisco. They reside in a fabulous refurbished firehouse (equipped with a firefighter pole and everything), which they share with a sweet cat named Fat Louie. Helen works as an artist, rock climbs in her free time, and is usually wearing some fun combination of worn-in denim and cute crochet tops that scream “carefree creative.” When Helen and Mia throw darts at paint-filled balloons, Mia remarks, “Normal moms help kids with their homework and you do this…”
But what makes Helen Thermopolis truly special is her ability to remain completely unshakable in the face of wild circumstances. She gave up the prospect of royal life, with al of its promises of fame and fortune, because she knew she would not be fulfilled as the wife of a king. So when the royal family comes knocking once again, her focus remains squarely on advocating for her daughter, always ensuring that the throne is what Mia truly wants. While this should not be novel, most movie mothers are either dead or constantly pressuring their offspring to do more, study harder, and generally be perfect. Helen loves her uncool, glasses-wearing daughter, and has no expectation that she change herself to fit society’s narrow ideals. And when Mia gets overwhelmed with it all, Helen’s there to calm her down and let her cry it out.
Helen's light shines especially bright in tough moments like the film’s fateful beach party scene. Mia’s ascent to fame culminates at a bash where her longtime crush, Josh (Erik Von Detten), has finally taken an interest in her. Everything is going fine until the paparazzi descend on her, and Josh forcibly kisses Mia in order to soak up some attention for himself. When she gets home, her mother is there to console her. Hugging her close, Helen says: “My mother always told me not to cry but you’ve been hurt, so you just cry, okay?” Nothing pulls on the heartstrings like the healing of intergenerational pain.
In a sea of broken mother-daughter relationships, Mia and Helen’s tender dynamic stands out. Helen consistently chooses to remain calm, making space for her daughter to panic, to doubt herself, and to grow. Helen’s adventurous past is only hinted at in the movie, but it takes a very specific kind of person to give up royalty to become an anonymous artist and a great mom. For that, she has my unwavering admiration.