Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Mother and Child Movie Review

The Colombian director Rodrigo García is something of an Alejandro González Iñárritu-light. Not in the sense that his films are worse than Iñárritu’s, but because they utilize a similar approach to interconnected narrative threads without the same gravity. It should come as no surprise then that Iñárritu served as executive producer on García’s Nine Lives and his most recent film (and subject of this review) Mother and Child about the realities of adoption and the consequences imparted on all parties involved.

Three women figure in three stories joined thematically. Annette Bening is Karen, a middle-aged woman so fixated on the daughter she gave up for adoption after becoming pregnant at fourteen that she has never allowed anyone to get close enough to have a meaningful relationship. She is full of regret and there’s an unspoken animosity toward her elderly dying mother who, the movie makes implicit, forced her into her decision. Naomi Watts is Elizabeth, the now grown daughter Karen gave up 37 years earlier. Karen is a career lawyer, working her way up the ladder hoping for a future Appellate Court appointment. She keeps nothing to tie her down to one place, no lasting relationship, adopted parents gone. Kerry Washington is Lucy. She is unable to bear her own children so she and husband Joseph (David Ramsay) have decided to adopt.

The Spanish title of the film, Madres e hijas (Mothers and Daughters), is perhaps more apt. The key relationships in the film are between mothers and their daughters. The men are largely secondary – pawns in the lives of the various women. The three most important are Joseph, Paco (Jimmy Smits), a physiotherapist working in the same clinic as Karen, who fancies her and Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), Elizabeth’s new boss and eventual lover.

Karen is cold and difficult with an impossible shell to crack. She self aware enough to say as much to Paco. Still, after the standoffish and downright nasty behavior she exhibits toward him in their first three encounters, it’s astounding that he’s still willing to go on a date with her. When he makes the absolutely perfect gesture toward her in a moment of sheer vulnerability, she’s not far off the mark when she asks, “Where the hell did you come from?” There’s hardly a man in the world who would have come back for more after her first brush-off. At least she’s smart enough to see a good thing when it throws itself on her.

García’s screenplay doesn’t resort to Big Pronouncements that lesser films employ to reveal character. His writing has a touch of subtlety. Even when Karen gives a speech about the daughter she gave away all those years ago and how it affects her every single day, it doesn’t feel written. Part of this must be credited to Bening’s wonderful performance. She shrugs off the diva that drove her acting in American Beauty and Being Julia. This is a more mature, more focused Annette Bening. It is perhaps a role that could only have been performed by a mother and she is positively sublime. I would be surprised if she missed out on another Oscar nomination.

Elizabeth is perhaps a bit too much the caricature of a strong career woman and I wonder if there’s a bit of misogynistic fear in the way García develops her. When she first takes Paul to bed she stays in total control, not allowing him anything that she doesn’t want. Later she seduces her married neighbor by flashing him from her balcony. The way the character is written feels like García thinks that career woman and sexually dominant are not mutually exclusive traits.

Oddly, however, when she discovers she’s pregnant she confounds both her doctor’s and the audience’s expectations. Considering the tubal ligation she had at 17, her doctor (Amy Brenneman) makes a brazenly unprofessional assumption about what she wants to do. It’s a phony ploy designed to give provide a big acting moment to startle the audience with Elizabeth’s actual wishes. Her decision to keep the baby still strikes me as odd given who she is and everything she’s worked toward throughout her life. I think we’re meant to understand that because of her feelings about her birth mother, she doesn’t want to be wracked by guilt over her decision. I just find it hard to believe that this woman would not choose to terminate the pregnancy, but then García couldn’t arrive at his denouement.

The casting of Samuel L. Jackson is interesting. It’s nice to see him playing against type in the role of a sensitive middle-aged man, still damaged from the death of his wife. The only unfortunate aspect of casting a black man in the role is that it becomes obvious at the end that Garcia must have seen it as necessary to have a black man play Paul so that things would fit together better in the narrative. The truth is it’s not necessary, but for someone without the courage to be race blind, it is. I can’t really say more than that without giving away plot details.

All that and I still haven’t even mentioned Lucy’s story, which provides a counterpoint to the Karen/Elizabeth stories of adoption and regret. Lucy discovers that modern adoption is quite different. The woman giving up her child wants to meet the prospective parents to interview them. She wants to name the baby and be assured that the child will be raised in an environment she’s comfortable with. In the old days it was always anonymous, she’s told by Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones). Meanwhile her husband seems somewhat distant and removed, sitting by passively as they make their plans to adopt a child.

García’s screenplay falters only occasionally, particularly in the inclusion of a blind teenager who provides Elizabeth with world weary advice beyond her years. Leave it to Sophocles to use blind characters to help others see. Also the ending involves a confluence of ridiculous coincidence bearing the mark of Iñárritu, but without the same adept skill to set those coincidences within the story organically.

All the principal actors give strong performances and, in addition to Cherry Jones, the film is studded with great performances by character actors: Eileen Ryan as Karen’s mother; S. Epatha Merkerson as Lucy’s mother; David Morse; and Lisa Gay Hamilton. This is a film that understands the importance of having reliable actors in small roles, and these are actors who recognized a script worthy of their talents.

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