No emotion goes understated and no good deed goes unpunished in Rasit Celikezer’s thudding melodrama, “Can,” which conveys a conservative message of the obligations of women toward their children that should rile feminists of either gender. By playing needless tricks with time, the pic suggests that its story about an estranged couple and their adopted child is bigger and more expansive than it actually is. Hardly of the caliber of stronger, fest-traveling Turkish films, this Sundance special jury prizewinner will draw minor Euro buyers and fest entreaties.
In what at first seems to be a double role, Selen Ucer plays the wife of Cemal (Serdar Orcin), whose desire for a child is thwarted by his infertility; she’s also the harried, neglectful working mom of a 7-year-old boy named Can (Yusuf Berkan Demirbag). Routinely left by his mom at a park bench, Can patiently waits for her to return each day from her job in a cafe. Meanwhile, Cemal rashly makes a face-saving decision to have his wife fake a pregnancy, with plans to adopt a baby when the nine-month mark approaches.
It emerges that Ucer’s character is the same woman, Ayse, with her story broken into two simultaneously told sections seven years apart. Can is able to wait only so long for Ayse (though it’s never clear how many days or months he’s had to do this, or if this terrible routine marks a new episode in the boy’s life), and he manages for a time to find a way to follow Ayse to her work and then to retrace his steps to the park bench to keep her unaware of his spying. But when Ayse sees him outside the eatery, complications ensue.
Cemal’s arrangements for the adoption, with help from his factory boss, Mehmet (Erdal Cindoruk), result in a baby for whom Ayse can work up zero affection despite Cemal’s best fatherly efforts. While he resents her for not behaving like a proper mother, she nurtures a growing hatred of him for imposing this burden on them.
Celikezer’s moralistic course for Ayse requires her to gradually realize her essential maternal responsibilities while also exhibiting behavior that lacks psychological credibility. Ayse’s inability to assert her true feelings — that she can’t and won’t work up any connection let alone love for an adopted child — is a way of setting her up for her dilemma, yet her lack of a mothering instinct is never sufficiently explored. Meanwhile, after evidently having connected deeply with baby Can, Cemal suddenly leaves his family in the lurch, a similarly inexplicable and contrived act that informs the film’s second half.
The various plot contortions and temporal shifts are all designed to send Ayse a distinct message: that she had better learn to be a good mom to her adorable moppet of a son, whose sheer lovability (as Celikezer insistently directs little Demirbag) makes it all the more astounding that the woman doesn’t shower him with affection. Conversely, six straight years of utter lovelessness should have turned Can into a mighty cold kid, something this movie simply will not permit. Any way you look at it, the family dynamics simply don’t compute.
Ali Ozel’s cinematography expressively captures several Istanbul neighborhoods, and creates a strong visual contrast between exteriors and interiors. But composer Tamer Ciray’s score doesn’t help matters by blatantly telegraphing emotional responses.