Mother and Child opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)
Rodrigo García’s Mother and Child is what Crash might have looked like had it been a made-for-Lifetime movie. This can be a good thing as well as a bad thing. Like Crash, García’s film is set in Los Angeles and features a seemingly random cast of characters who will, as the stories intertwine, begin to connect with one other.
But where Crash was an unrelenting series of racially charged collisions, Mother and Child is a postracial story of maternal relationships. Mothers who gave up their children for adoption, grown adopted children looking for their mothers, childless mothers looking to adopt, a teenage mother interviewing potential adoptive parents. This is a premise that is spring-loaded to generate tears.
García’s last film was another Los Angeles ensemble piece, a film called Nine Lives that was a collection of vignettes, each filmed in a single long take of 10 minutes or so. It was an impressive achievement even if several of the stories were considerably overcooked. The cast of Mother and Child is another ensemble, a roll call of fine performers whose names no longer carry the marquee weight they once did, including Annette Bening, Jimmy Smits, Naomi Watts, Samuel L. Jackson and David Morse. But where anger, vindictiveness and confrontation were the hallmarks of Nine Lives, the characters in Mother and Child are sad peoplewith perhaps the singular exception of Cherry Jones’ creepily smiling nun (what’s her story?) who runs the Catholic adoption agency that serves as a transfer point and repository of missed connections for the characters.
In an attention-grabbing opening-credits montage, we see how 14-year-old Elizabeth’s childhood ends when she became pregnant with the baby who would grow up to become Karen (Watts), a 35-ish lawyer who, despite her brilliance, has drifted from job to job. Karen also recklessly moves through sexual dalliances, seducing her new boss (Jackson) and her new married neighbor (Marc Blucas) in short succession. Neither Karen nor her biological mother are much fun: The middle-aged Elizabeth (Bening) lives with her ailing mother and is so determinedly single that she all but sprays Mace at a smitten co-worker (Smits). However, Watts, a natural Hitchcock blonde, is at her best when she’s playing dark, perverse characters, and she keeps us interested even when we don’t like her character, which is during most of the movie.
In a parallel African-American universe, a childless couple (Kerry Washington and David Ramsey) is subjected to a grueling interview by Ray, an extraordinarily self-possessed teenager (Shareeka Epps, who made such a remarkable impression in Half Nelson). Ray is as fierce and unyielding as Ellen Page’s Juno was a wiseacre, but the character is essentially the same: a young mother unafraid to make demands of the well-off professionals who would adopt her child.
This film becomes a circle-of-life tale, reaching for universality with its far-flung characters whose lives will inevitably intersectall to the rarely varying tinkles of Ed Shearmur’s score (blandly anonymous when you don’t notice it, and annoying when you do). In addition to Paul Haggis’ Crash, we’ve seen these multistrand narratives in such films as 21 Grams, Babel and Amores Perros, which is no coincidence: The executive producers of Mother and Child include the director of those films, Alejandro González Iñárritu, as well as the other two members of the Mexican power trio, Alfonso Cuarón and Guillermo del Toro. (García himself is Colombian, and the son of Gabriel García Márquez.)
García’s narrative is poised and immaculateI particularly admired the way he handled a shocking plot turn by conveying the information in a single shot that lasted about two secondsbut the story is oppressive and humorless, and its general direction is unsurprising. There’s a certain satisfaction to be found in a film in which the pieces all fit together, but the characters in Mother and Child are so bereft, so unhappy, that it’s hard to see how finally having a child will solve their problems. On the other hand, that could well be the point.