By Scott Martin
Mother and Child, USA / Spain, 2009
Written and Directed by Rodrigo Garcia
I’m always fascinated by multi-narrative character studies, films that take total strangers and loop them together based on a sole coincidence. Be it an unfortunate turn of events, or something mundane yet fortuitous, we’re all connected; that seems to be the mission statement of films like this. Here, the unfortunate events pile onto each other to become something fortuitous. It’s a film that centers its meditation on adoption, but it isn’t preaching; it’s merely telling a story about it. I appreciate that above most things in filmmakers. Focusing its lenses on three women (Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, and Kerry Washington), Mother and Child is the cure for the common Lifetime movie. It’s melodramatic, at times, but I’ve always considered melodrama to be a symptom of a bigger ailment, not the ailment itself. The events in this film are melodramatic, so how could the surrounding elements not be? It wouldn’t flow as a film, and it’s the ebb and flow of Rodrigo Garcia’s films that make them memorable. What I’ve always taken from his work, even if unaffected by his stories, is that he has excellent control over his atmosphere.
The film is centered around the idea of motherhood, and what it means to be a mother. Karen (Bening) spends every night writing to a daughter she gave up years ago. Elizabeth (Watts) wants nothing to do with parenthood, but harbors several dark secrets. She’s cold, aggressive, and sexually dominant, belying a truth she wants no one to know. Lucy (Washington) aches for a child. She’s in the process of adopting a baby from a young girl named Ray (Shareeka Epps, in a stunning small role). There is a nun at the adoption agency named Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones) who acts as an emotional median to the three women, though each go off the rails. Karen takes care of her dying mother, but will have no one around when she passes except a co-worker named Paco (Jimmy Smits), who is in love with her. Elizabeth sets her sights on her new boss, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), and forces an affair. Lucy has a failing marriage with her husband; she can’t seem to keep the pieces together. The film is never about the fact that motherhood means having a child, but merely motherhood in an existential sense. You can be a mother without a son or daughter; you just have to have the right people around you.
Here, though, I took more than that. What struck me most wasn’t Garcia’s tonal acquisition. The performances of the whole cast are touching and effecting, specifically the three women. Bening, who had another knock-out performance last year in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right, has a unique approach to whomever she plays. She seems to create her characters from, rather than the ground up, the sky down. She’s an incredibly cerebral actress, like she considers the intellect and shrewdness of her character to be the soul. Toe to toe with her, here, is the never-better Naomi Watts. I’ve wanted a performance like this from her for quite a while now. Sharing Bening’s shrewdness, she creates a completely different monster while honoring the intended mirroring between the characters. It’s essentially two or three performances in one neat package; absolutely breathtaking work, and worthy of the high accolades. Kerry Washington gives her best work as well, as a woman who is childlike and immature, though begging beyond all reason to be “a real woman”. Why she isn’t a bigger star, I don’t know. Cherry Jones, as Sister Joanne, steals the scenes in which she appears. The men of the film, namely Jackson and Smits, give sensitive and strong performances as well.
As intelligent a director as Garcia is, his screenplay here suffers early on from juggling too much. I kept hoping that it was a stylistic choice for the opening scenes to practically be a montage, and that it would be the beginning of a bookend and the film would end the same way, but the film’s lyrical and languid ending is antithetical to its mashed introduction. Aside from these off-key stylistic choices, though, we get a chance to not only see how these women view the world, but what’s infinitely more interesting to me, how Garcia views their worlds. Tone, absolutely, is the savior of this often somber, semi-sweet tale of loss and gain. It’s a lovely film. Difficult to take, and “melodramatic,” but lovely nonetheless.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com