Rodrigo Garcia’s new film is entitled Mother and Child, but it might more accurately have been called Mother and Daughter, as variations of that freighted relationship play out in the interconnected lives of three women in Los Angeles, depicted with stellar ensemble work by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington.
Annette Bening’s role is the most attention-getting, as Karen, a woman so angry and closed that she becomes apoplectic when a co-worker (the wonderful Jimmy Smits) attempts to give her a bag of home-grown tomatoes. Karen lives with a mother possibly even grimmer than herself, but her true wound is the loss of the baby she was forced to give up for adoption when she was fifteen years old.
It soon becomes apparent, at least to the viewer, that this baby is now the adult Elizabeth, played by Watts, a corporate lawyer who protects herself with clinical detachment and a sexually sadistic streak. Meanwhile, Washington plays Lucy, a young wife desperate to adopt and become a mother.
Far apart at first, these lives overlap in that hyperlink way popularized by movies such as Babel and Syriana, but in this case the collisions are not so much a matter of chance or fate as it is of deep connections having to do with motherhood, and all revolving around the character of a social-working nun (“Mother Superior,” representing Mary, the Holy Mother?) played by Cherry Jones with appealing compassion. If such nuns were the rule rather than the far-apart exception, we might all be tempted to convert to Catholicism.
Writer-director Garcia is extraordinarily sympathetic to and interested in the lives of women. In fact, he seems obsessed. His first two features, 2001’s Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and 2005’s Nine Lives, also explored the lives of women in loosely related stories, and his rich, complex roles for women, once a Hollywood staple and now a shameful rarity, have attracted grateful loyalty and committed performances from dozens of the industry’s’ most talented actresses, including Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Amy Brenneman (who has appeared in all three Garcia features).
These strong performances are Garcia’s salvation in Mother and Child, imbuing life and an organic looseness to a script that can feel at times schematic and artificial. Minor characters, in particular, are forced to recite lines that sound more Greek Chorus or Issues Brochure than human, including a beautific blind girl who spouts wise things. And the final act attempts to turn up the drama and tie up plot points in ways that betray the fine work all three actresses have poured into their roles.
It is a testament to Bening’s incredible skill and likability that she very nearly manages to pull off the radical reversal she is required to make in the course of the film. And Watts’ radiant and naturalistic performance makes Elizabeth’s sharp edges and puzzling choices not only believable but sympathetic. Washington, so accomplished in her auspicious 2000 debut Our Song, has since been stuck in girlfriend and wife of roles (perhaps most notably in The Last King of Scotland).
The distraught and baby-hungry Lucy is not quite the fully-fleshed role she deserves, but it is a good start. All three play the part of both mother and child with power and poignancy. Samuel Jackson and Jimmy Smits are both refreshingly uncartoonish and human in supporting roles as decent men in this world of women.
Garcia deserves kudos for his devotion to women and their stories, his nuanced and generous portrayal of the relationships between the sexes, his color-blind casting, and most of all, his fabulous actresses and their beautiful performances (the real reason to see this film). Now, if he could give up an attachment to certain amateurish literary conceits (the blind character, the rigidly friendless and lonesome character found only in short stories–in real life even misanthropes have a leftover college friend or quilting buddy), as well as an impulse to over-plot and over-control, all of which play poorly onscreen and detract from his fine gifts, his work would benefit greatly. As it is, Mother and Child still makes for an absorbing and rewarding movie experience.