Mother and Child is a potent, poignant and beautifully calibrated film about the always timely issue of adoption and its effect on three strangers in Los Angeles, whose lives connect in haunting and unpredictable ways. The adoption theme would seem like no big deal if the three women were happy and securely established in their homes and careers. But all three are tortured victims of frustration, their lives spun out with rising and falling dramatic impact, variations on a single theme. The result is heartfelt and mesmerizing.
The enchanting Annette Bening is Karen, a bitter, unhappy spinster coping with the death of her mother and lifelong feelings of loss and regret over the child she gave up for adoption when she was 14. Naomi Watts is Elizabeth, the grown daughter she’s never met, now an icy lawyer with a lust for power games whose own adoption at birth has poisoned her against the idea of marriage and motherhood. Kerry Washington is Lucy, an infertile wife who turns to adoption as the key to the maternity she passionately craves, against the wishes of her skeptical husband. Colombian-born writer-director Rodrigo García (Nine Lives, Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her) is both a sophisticated storyteller (his father is the writer Gabriel García Márquez) and a master of multilayered narratives about strong, liberated women. As he threads together the fabric of his film, you become intensely involved in all three stories, wondering how they will inevitably intersect. One of the many pleasures in this exemplary film is watching the women grow and evolve, revealing more about themselves in each successive scene. Fraught with pitfalls, the narrative comes together seamlessly.
Every scene is sharply observed, shaded with nuance rare for an American film, and pulsating with subtle emotion.
The film unfolds like a novel, each chapter of which having a resonance that stands alone while luring us into finding out what’s on the next page. Karen’s loneliness and distrust of men makes life thorny for a friendly co-worker (Jimmy Smits) at the rehab clinic where she works, but she reserves most of her disdain for children. She reserves her most private feelings for the journal she has kept for 37 years, for the daughter she has never seen; she hopes some day they’ll meet. Elizabeth is a tough, no-nonsense attorney, and she cleverly seduces her older boss (Samuel L. Jackson) as well as her next-door neighbor (Marc Blucas), who is married, for the sheer sport of it. Lucy’s excess of human warmth is wasted in the uphill struggle to convince her husband (David Ramsey) that he is capable of loving a baby that is not his own, but she enters the painful adoption agency process anyway with the aid of a Catholic nun (the great Cherry Jones, in the kind of role Fay Bainter invented). Every scene is sharply observed, shaded with nuance rare for an American film and pulsating with subtle emotion. Even the scene in which Ms. Bening meets her long-lost child’s biological father (David Morse) eschews cheap soap opera histrionics for the sake of tears.
Ask any mother who was ever forced to give up a child for adoption, or any adoptee who has spent years wondering or worrying about unknown parentage, and they will tell you that you never forget that you can never know who you really are. How these relationships finally merge and the three women find ways to reach out for whatever roots they can find in their lives builds, brick by brick, to an increasingly satisfying conclusion with a surprising cinematic coda. (Not all of the multiple stories end up the way you expect.) Very credible acting is greatly responsible for the honest and infectious quality of the film, but the delicate pacing, the lovely cinematography and the restraint in the use of music make invaluable contributions. Mr. García has also gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid sentimentality, examining the causes of conflict, anxiety, insecurity and self-doubt that have impacted the parallel lives of these remarkable women. Unlike a long line of Hollywood tearjerkers destined to play “Mammy” on your heartstrings—from Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust to Shirley Temple in That Hagen Girl—this is one film about adoption you can cherish in different musical keys. Some cynics will label it schematic, others might dismiss it as a “woman’s picture.” Ignore them all. Mother and Child is a flawless film of heartrending realism about the eternal chord that binds parents and children and the emptiness when they are separated. Everything about it adds up to a consummate revelation that left me enriched and feeling hopeful about the artistry of motion pictures.
3 Eyeballs out of 4
Running time: 125 minutes
Written and directed by: Rodrigo Garcia
Directed by: Jon Favreau
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Jimmy Smits
4 Eyeballs out of 4