Rodrigo García's Mother and Child considers what happens when those who don't want babies get pregnant and those who do can't. For the women in García's poignant and exceptionally acted ensemble film, motherhood is considerably more involved than giving birth and giving love.
For the fertile Myrtle, unplanned motherhood might involve surrendering the baby, thereby depriving her of an object for her maternal feelings. For the barren Erin, it might involve adoption proceedings for a child who might not be relinquished, thereby consigning her to a similar limbo. And what of the child, that third strand in the adoption braid that binds the women in this film?
Such are the charged themes of the multicharacter movie, boasting passionate performances from Annette Bening, Kerry Washington and Naomi Watts under García's most compassionate (and faith-driven) direction.
García, whose previous work include Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives (and on television, many episodes of HBO's In Treatment), is a human heat-seeking missile when it comes to decisive moments in the lives of women. The Colombia-born filmmaker (son of novelist Gabriel García Márquez) is an actress's best friend. He writes meaty roles for his women and prepares them to maximum juiciness.
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In this somewhat forced film about interconnectedness, Bening is Karen, a flinty physical therapist, now 51, still stewing that at age 14 she relinquished her infant daughter. She is bitter toward her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan), who forced her to give up the baby, leaving a hole where Karen's heart should be. Karen's mom treats the young daughter of the family maid as a granddaughter surrogate, which steams Karen even more.
Then there is Elizabeth (Watts), 37, a legal eagle and lone eagle who preys on men, including her boss (a nicely modulated performance by Samuel L. Jackson). Because of her age, we can guess Elizabeth's relation to Karen but cannot predict what will happen to her.
Then there is Lucy (Washington), a bakery owner who is happily married but unhappily infertile, encouraging her reluctant husband (David Ramsey) to board the adoption train.
Although I didn't quite believe in the arc of Bening's character, that someone so emotionally dammed up could let go and let flow, Bening believes it. It helps that the laid-back Jimmy Smits, patient and comic, is one of the change agents.
Watts, initially frosty and controlling, likewise visibly thaws during the course of the film. In scene after scene, García illustrates how isolation calcifies the personality and connection makes it flexible.
As the one who might be forced to make a choice between marriage and motherhood, Washington's Lucy is the most compelling of the three. Her scenes with S. Epatha Merkerson (as her no-nonsense mother) and Shareeka Epps (as a pregnant teen auditioning adoptive parents) are the film's most memorable sequences.
Presiding over the story like a guardian angel is Cherry Jones, a nun who runs an adoption placement agency and has fateful encounters with the three principals.
On its face, Mother and Child is about the effect of adoption, but in its heart, García's movie reckons how consequential motherhood is in the calculus of womanhood. The fine actors show how we bond to those not related to us by blood — and how we love.