Directed by: Rodrigo García
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson
This is an insidious movie—and I mean that in the best possible sense. I’d never heard of writer/director Rodrigo García (he seems to have worked primarily in TV). Wanting to get an advance feel for exactly what kind of movie Mother and Child was, I popped the screener into the DVD player with every intention of watching only a few minutes. Next thing I know, I’ve been sucked into the film and have watched the whole 128 minutes of it. Consider that a strong endorsement.
The IMDb lists Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro as executive producers, but only Iñárritu’s name appears on the film in that capacity—the others are relegated to the acknowledgements. Regardless of the truth of the matter, Mother and Child is much more closely related to Iñárritu’s work than to that of Cuarón or del Toro. In fact, the film’s multi-story construction is very similar to that found in Iñárritu’s work. You might think of Mother and Child as a more accessible and likable Babel (2006)—with a higher soap factor. But that’s not all. Part of the story and the use of an inconstant timeline are pretty obviously influenced by Tim Kirkman’s Loggerheads (2005). And for that matter, there’s a plot device right out of George Stevens’ Penny Serenade (1941) that gets dusted off and brought into play.
On its simplest level, Mother and Child is about three women—Karen (Annette Bening), Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) and Lucy (Kerry Washington)—with three separate yet ultimately connected stories. Karen is an emotionally closed-off 51-year-old woman, who lives with her failing mother (Eileen Ryan). Karen works as a physical therapist and has an attitude roughly the size of Gibraltar. Her all-consuming interest lies in the baby she gave up for adoption when she was 14. That child is Elizabeth, who even though she doesn’t know her mother, is very much her mother’s daughter. She is driven and successful, but refuses any form of emotional attachment. Lucy, on the other hand, seems completely removed from either scenario—being simply a woman who cannot have children and is trying to adopt one with her less enthused husband, Joseph (TV actor David Ramsey).
Without giving away too much of the way the stories unfold, it’s fair to say that the film is concerned with the growth of these three over its course more than anything else. Each woman is damaged in some way. With Karen and Elizabeth, the damage is psychological and manifests itself in unpleasant views of the world. Karen’s life has been shaped by her teenage pregnancy and a mother who has taught her that human interaction leads to disappointment. She has become wrapped up in her fantasies about a daughter she has never even tried to find, and has otherwise brushed the world aside. Harmless advances from a co-worker, Paco (Jimmy Smits), are met with out-of-proportion hostility—to a point that it seems Karen might actually have become unbalanced. Overall, it’s a brave performance by Bening, because she spends a great deal of the movie being unlikable. But it’s a testament to her abilities that she’s able to change that perception over the course of the film.
Elizabeth is damaged from being an unwanted child and from a less-than-idyllic childhood with her adoptive mother. Elizabeth gives out little information about herself—even after she enters into an affair with her boss, Paul (a very subdued Samuel L. Jackson). The viewer, like the characters, has to pick up hints along the way as to what has caused her to shut herself off from the rest of the world.
Lucy, on the other hand, views herself as physically damaged because of her inability to conceive a child—and this has been quietly driven home by her husband Joseph and his family with constant reminders that the only thing he ever wanted was to be a father. Except for the fact that her story is also about adoption, it seems almost tangential, but it ultimately isn’t. It also provides Kerry Washington with the best role she has ever had—and offers solid parts for S. Epatha Merkersen (Black Snake Moan) and Shareeka Epps (Half Nelson). To find one strong role for a black actress working in Hollywood is unusual. To find three in the same movie is remarkable.
How all this ties up, I leave to you to find out, because part of the appeal of the film lies in that discovery. But do find out. This is a movie well worth your time and attention. Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity and language.