film review: MOTHER AND CHILD

Written & directed by Rodrigo Garcia
Edited by Steven Weisberg
Cinematography by Xavier Perez Grobet
Executive Producers: Alejandro González Inárritu
Original Music by Ed Sheamur
Cast: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits, Kerry Washington, Cherry Jones, S. Epatha Merkerson, Elpidia Carrillo, David Morse, Tatyana Ali & Lisa Gay Hamilton
USA/Spain.  125 minutes.  Rated R.

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In the opening sequence of Rodrigo Garcia’s deeply moving new film, “Mother and Child”, a flashback introduces 14 year old Karen losing her virginity. The consequences of this tender albeit premature moment sets the stage for what will wind up, in Karen’s own words, defining who she is. Thirty-six years later, now a middle aged adult and skillfully played by Annette Bening, Karen works as a physical therapist by day and as a nurse for her elderly mother by night. The fact that she is a full time caretaker to everyone except for the one person in the world she would like to be—the adopted daughter she gave up—Karen has become something of a cranky loner. It’s as though sealing herself off somehow makes up for the unforgivable act of giving her baby up for adoption all those years ago. While we watch and sometimes laugh at the complex way Karen relates to others, one of whom is her housekeeper Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo of “Seven Pounds”), whose close relationship with Karen’s mother leaves Karen both confused and envious. She simultaneously resents her mother for her judgmental ways even while she seems cursed to repeat the same behavior with others. Karen is harsh towards Sofia’s young daughter, perhaps because of the lost opportunity in having the same unconditional relationship in her own life. It is with the appearance of a persistent and kind admirer (a fine Jimmy Smits) when Karen’s heart begins to thaw. Paco comes to her with a quiet certainty that even the usually reluctant Karen can not resist.

Annette Benning & Jimmy Smits; photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

As is common in so many films nowadays, “Mother and Child” has a series of interwoven story lines in the tradition of “Crash” and “Babel”. The movie’s other two story lines also revolve around how adoption has affected the lives of both Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) and Lucy (Kerry Washington). Elizabeth, the grown daughter Karen gave up all those years ago, has spent her entire life in a cocoon of her own creation. She had her tubes tied at the age of seventeen and remained decidedly single. She has chosen to not settle down in any one place, preferring the freedom of moving from city to city and job to job at her own whim. The pain she carries, as illustrated by her steely composure and occasional acts of cruelty, show a woman trying to cope with the deep sense of abandonment adoption can produce. An attorney, Elizabeth has returned to Los Angeles for a job interview at a prestigious law firm. She’s interviewed by the firm’s owner, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), and the two quickly fall into an affair–something that takes Paul, a widower and father, by surprise. Drawn to her ambition and independence, Paul becomes rather caught up with Elizabeth.

Lucy and Joseph are pursuing adoption after learning she is unable to conceive. Joseph (David Ramsey) seems to be on board at first but withdraws during the vetting process. Despite the breach this causes their marriage, Lucy is determined to pursue the adoption process on her own. She bends over backwards to try and meet all the demands of the prickly pregnant birth mother, Ray (Shareeka Epps). Lucy also disregards the skeptical but supportive advice of her own mother, Ada (S. Epithia Merkerson). All the mothers and daughters in this film seem to tread carefully around each other, as if struggling with the complexities of past wounds caused to the other.

Naomi Watts & Samuel Jackson; photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

“Mother and Child” is further elevated by its outstanding support cast which includes Cherry Jones as the sympathetic nun who helps find homes for adopted babies, while also assisting parents and their estranged adopted children to re-connect. Also rounding out the cast is David Morse, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Elizabeth Peña, Tatyana Ali, and Amy Brennaman, to name a few. It’s to the credit to its amazing cast and filmmaker that there are no false notes in “Mother and Child”; the thrill is in watching its three primary characters find peace, each in their own way, despite their overwhelmingly painful journeys in getting there.

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