Mother and Child *** ½
Directed by: Rodrigo García.
Written By: Rodrigo García.
Starring: Annette Bening (Karen), Naomi Watts (Elizabeth), Kerry Washington (Lucy), Samuel L. Jackson (Paul), Cherry Jones (Sister Joanne), Eileen Ryan (Nora), David Ramsey (Joseph), Jimmy Smits (Paco), Elpidia Carrillo (Sofia), Simone Lopez (Cristi), S. Epatha Merkerson (Ada), Shareeka Epps (Ray), David Morse (Tom), Amy Brenneman (Dr. Eleanor Stone), Tatyana Ali (Maria), Elizabeth Peña (Amanda), Lisa Gay Hamilton (Leticia).
It is rare to see a movie focused on real women – not women the way men want to see them, but women as they see themselves. It is no secret that most movies are written and directed by men, so this explains part of it. It has been a good thing that in recent years, women have moved behind the camera more and more – but Mother and Child is the rarest of movies. A film written and directed by a man, that sees women as they truly are. It isn’t always pretty, but it’s always honest.
The film opens with a scene that will seem familiar to many teenagers – the clumsy fumbling of your first sexual experience. We then flash forward 37 years. That little teenage girl has grown into Karen (Annette Bening) – a nurse who comes home to take care of her aging mother (Eileen Ryan). She gave up that baby – a girl – all those years before, but has not stopped thinking about her or loving her. She regrets her decision, resents her mother, and pushes everyone away from her.
Next we meet Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) – who is of course the little girl Karen gave up for adoption all those years ago. She isn’t close to her adopted parents, has always wondered about her birth mother, but never sought her out, and like Karen, she pushes everyone away. She is returning to her hometown to take a job with a prestigious law firm, run by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), a widower. She sets her sights on her, and he responds.
Finally there is Lucy (Kerry Washington). She and her husband have been trying to have a baby for years, but have given up. They cannot get pregnant, so they have decided to adopt. They go to the same agency that took care of Karen’s adoption all those years before, and are matched up with a young woman (Shareeka Epps) who is pregnant, but doesn’t want her baby. They agree to adopt the child, but then Lucy’s husband has second thoughts – he wants his own baby, not someone else’s.
From this description, it may sound like Mother and Child is some sort of anti-adoption screed – but it really isn’t. Instead, it is a film that doesn’t delude itself into thinking that adoption is always easy – that it doesn’t come without issues of its own. It is also a film that looks honestly at these three women – allows them to be flawed and human, without judging them for their decisions. All three leads – Bening, Watts and Washington – play these women as real people who change over the course of the movie into the people they want to be. They are surrounded by a great supporting cast – especially Samuel L. Jackson who shows that he is still capable of being a subtle actor – something we haven’t seen in far too long.
Rodrigo Garcia wrote and directed Mother and Child, and like his wonderful Nine Lives (2005), it is a movie that looks at women openly and honestly. Garcia is one of the few directors working right now who is also capable of bringing to mind the late Robert Altman, and not disappointing you. Altman made many movies in which large casts of characters end up being related in ways we can only suspect when the starts. In the films of Garcia, much like Altman, this does not feel cheap or clichéd, as it can when it is not done properly, but instead resembles the messiness of real life. Mother and Child is a quiet, subtle movie, but I found it quite forceful and moving by the time it reached its conclusion.