Simply relating the narrative of Andrew Dosunmu’s seductive immigrant drama “Mother of George” would do little to convey the film’s stark, poetic power, much less its extraordinary visual and sonic acumen. Steeping the audience from the very first frame in the rich textures and bustling rhythms of Brooklyn’s Yoruba community, Dosunmu doesn’t use such iridescent local color merely to dress up this classically structured melodrama about a young wife driven to social ruin by infertility, but to provide a suitably prismatic context for the character’s fluid moods. Singular pic should bewitch auds worldwide on the festival circuit, coaxing refined arthouse distribution.
A former fashion photographer and Yves Saint Laurent design assistant, Nigerian-born Dosunmu made a strong impression in Park City two years ago with his freshman feature, “Restless City,” which lived up to its title in its swirling depiction of the African immigrant experience in New York City. In that regard, “Mother of George” is very much of a piece with Dosunmu’s debut, though the script by American playwright-performer Darci Picoult, inspired by a personal testimony overheard on her travels, lends it a greater sense of emotional consequence.
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The film opens at the swarming traditional wedding ceremony of Adenike (incandescent Zimbabwean actress Danai Gurira, best known for her recurring role on “The Walking Dead”) to mild-mannered restaurant proprietor Ayodele (Isaach De Bankole). At the close of the evening, Ayodele’s abrasive mother (Bukky Ajayi) formally names the couple’s unconceived child George — a traditional blessing that comes to seem a cruel curse when, after 18 months of trying, Adenike is still without child.
With few confidantes beyond her loving but distracted husband and her more worldly sister-in-law Sade (a superb Yaya Alafia), the desperate Adenike is in a sufficiently fragile mental state to consider her mother-in-law’s suggestion that Ayodele’s brother Biyi (Tony Okungbowa) father the child in secret. “A baby belongs to all of us,” she intones, rather ominously.
Accepting Adenike’s behavior from this point forward may be a leap for some viewers, but the bruised dignity of Gurira’s remarkable performance is consistently credible, while Picoult is at pains to illustrate the alternative moral playing field of a culture where Ayodele is entitled to take a second wife who can deliver him a child. Much classic African literature, including works by Ousmane Sembene and Mariama Ba, has covered this thematic terrain, but it’s both bracing and galling to see it play out in a contemporary Western context.
Dosunmu subtly uses the film’s ornate design elements to illustrate Adenike’s state of cultural flux, flooding the screen with jewel-colored African textiles to the point that their lavish patterns seem somehow reproachful, while Mobolaji Dawodu’s dazzling costumes slide tellingly across the spectrum from hip Afro-chic couture to fussy traditional garb.
But the star of the technical team — perhaps even of the entire film — is d.p. Bradford Young, whose highly particular compositions and shimmering ochre-to-cobalt lighting schemes are almost exhaustingly exquisite. Young, whose notable credits also include “Pariah” and “Middle of Nowhere,” is currently unrivaled in the under-informed field of illuminating darker complexions, expertise that “Mother of George” can claim in more areas than just its cinematography.