Rodrigo Garcia’s reputation as a writer for and director of women will increase exponentially with “Mother and Child,” an insightfully observed and exceptionally acted ensemble piece precisely about what the title suggests. Rather too neatly drawing together three disparate story strands over the course of two hours, the picture has a methodical nature that requires dutiful attention to work through the expository underbrush. But it compellingly addresses human emotions, ties and behavior that could not be more elemental, and spotlights fantastic work by Naomi Watts, Annette Bening and Samuel L. Jackson, in particular. Critical support will bring this to the attention of discriminating audiences, but the sensitive, heavily femme-centric material poses a huge challenge in convincing the male public that this is something more than a very high-end Lifetime movie.
From his career beginnings with “Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her” nearly a decade ago, Garcia has devoted himself overwhelmingly to creating fresh, acute portraits of modern women, often in the film equivalent of the short-story form. He does so again here, working with the same degree of intimate intensity but with longer character arcs and more pointed thematic intent, as he centers at the start on three women at various stages of theoretical, but not always actual, daughterhood and motherhood.
Flinty nursing home physical therapist Karen (Bening) cares for her deteriorating mother at home and can’t abide the occasional presence of the daughter of her maid Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), probably because she offers a continual reminder of the daughter she had at 14 and put up for adoption. When her ma soon dies, Karen is left alone and full of self-recrimination.
Elizabeth (Watts) is a frosty, self-possessed attorney who has moved back to Los Angeles and takes a top job at a big law firm run by Paul (Jackson), a widower with grown daughters. Giving him an out in case he deems such a thing inappropriate, the beautiful blonde initiates an affair with her new boss in which she calls all the shots, as shown in a breathtaking initial sex scene. Elizabeth is a bit scary in the degree to which everything in her life has to be precisely on her terms, but her commandeering absolutism has a clarity and simplicity about it, as well as an element of the dominatrix, that proves titillating to the men she approaches.
Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband have tried and failed to conceive a child for the longest time and are now in the adoption market, Lucy obsessively so. Working through adoption sponsor Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), the couple meets a pregnant 20-year-old who means to give up her baby at birth but is very particular about who will raise it, triggering further anxiety in Lucy.
There is much talk among the characters about babies delivered and given up, kids adopted, mothers and daughters who have never met and never will, and so on. Just as Paul has daughters, Paco (Jimmy Smits), a friendly fellow who takes an interest in Karen at work, has one as well. There are pointedly no “normal,” intact families here, only repeated remarks about how what counts is not blood but time spent together.
Despite its visual prominence throughout the picture, the issue of race is never mentioned. The cast is a rainbow coalition come to life, mixing whites, blacks and Hispanics without as much as a passing remark or friendly joke on the subject. This lack of acknowledgment is provocative in a way, in that it simultaneously renders the matter entirely irrelevant and makes it the elephant in the room; ironically, the question of the color of a newborn baby’s skin late-on becomes a matter of considerable suspense.
Each of the three central women has her own way of making it difficult for others to penetrate her defenses. Distraught at losing her mother and faced with never meeting her own daughter, Karen runs hot and cold with Paco before making genuine connections with him, Sofia and Sofia’s daughter. Elizabeth has her whole life figured out until she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, a development she greets with customary decisiveness. Faced with her own crisis, Lucy becomes unglued before, with the help of her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson), she figures out how to deal with her new life. Pic’s final stretch becomes too pat and conveniently wrapped up in light of the unruliness of much of what’s come before, all the moreso from an overdose of treacly, unambiguously reassuring music.
A major continuity gaffe presents itself in that the birth mother of the baby Lucy’s waiting for, already significantly pregnant even before Elizabeth conceives, still hasn’t given birth by the time Elizabeth’s baby arrives. All the same, the interlude provides the opportunity for Watts to be glimpsed in a quiet, privileged moment caressing her own very large belly in her real-life advanced pregnancy.
Garcia’s filmmaking is discreet, fluid and straightforward, but the performances jump out by virtue of their nerve and honesty. Watts, so notable for her emotional availability as a performer, has never shown anything near the steeliness of her characterization here, a quality later set off by an extraordinary calm. Bening’s performance similarly extends across a huge range with much shading in between as Karen struggles to improve a life dominated by regrets. But perhaps the biggest surprise is Jackson, for the first time in memory playing a regular guy instead of someone extreme, and doing so with unprecedented restraint and deliberation. It would be great to see more of where this comes from.
Other thesping is solid to first-rate, production values fine if unspectacular.