Mother and Child
Directed by Rodrigo Garcia. Starring Naomi Watts, Annette Bening, Kerry Washington, Jimmy Smits, Samuel L. Jackson, Eileen Ryan, Elpidia Carrillo, Shareeka Epps, Cherry Jones, S. Epatha Merkerson, David Morse, Amy Brenneman, David Ramsey, Elizabeth Peña. (2010, R, 125 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 18, 2010
If the mother-child bond is the core human relationship, then this movie implies that we are an emotionally doomed species, though I do not think this was writer-director Garcia’s intent. That adoption, particularly, is fraught with psychic dangers is the revelation of each of the three individual storylines in Mother and Child. Composed in discrete but concurrent story strands, the characters never physically connect with one another even though the viewers have privileged inklings of the links among them. Garcia’s seriously contrived third-act melodramatics also bring some sense of unity to the various narrative arcs. This shift to sappy melodrama, however, pierces the film’s tough shell, turning what had theretofore been thorny characterizations into banal stereotypes. Yet if powerhouse performances are the sum of what you’re looking for, search no further than this movie. In the lead roles, Watts, Bening, and Washington deliver some of the best work of their careers, as do Jackson and Smits as a couple of the men who love them. The supporting roles, too, are filled with stunners, especially Epps (Half Nelson) as a pregnant teen involved in an open adoption, though such actors as Brenneman, Morse, Merkerson, and Peña elevate the film with their total of one or two scenes. Bening is a standout as Karen, a 51-year-old woman who still dwells on the baby she bore and gave away for adoption at the age of 14. It is the central fact of her life, and her regret has turned her into an angry, cold, and bitter person who lives alone with her mother (Ryan). The character is prickly and dislikable, as is Elizabeth (Watts). Elizabeth is a crackerjack attorney who jumps from firm to firm and uses her beauty and sexuality as her means of controlling situations, thereby compensating for the abandonment she feels as an adopted child. Bening and Watts dare performances that challenge our capacity for empathy, while Washington has the more conventional role as an infertile woman desirous of a baby to adopt. Visually, Garcia brings little to the table, though he already established his propensity for anthology storytelling in the films Nine Lives and Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her. Though Mother and Child offers numerous examples among the secondary characters of happy parent-and-child relationships, Garcia also seems to be warning us that children can be the cause of suffering and disappointment and that adoption can lead to pathology. It seems a very Catholic view, with images of a bloody pietà lurking somewhere in the subconscious of this thing. Again, I don’t think this is exactly what Garcia is trying to get across, and when combined with the tone-changing melodramatics late in the film, Mother and Child winds up with some very mixed messages.