Thursday, June 24, 2010

Review: "Mother and Child"

Karen and Elizabeth are two fractured souls living in Los Angeles, connected by a bond of pain and love that neither one of them can sense.

Karen (Annette Bening) is 50ish, a physical therapist who demands an impossible level of perfection from everyone around her, and herself. Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is in her late 30s, a powerful lawyer who doesn't connect with other women, and uses men as sexual playthings.

Though in very different ways, these two women push back against interpersonal relationships and intimacy. They live apart from others in prisons of their own choosing.

When a handsome new nurse at Karen's work (Jimmy Smits) makes overtures of romantic interest, she reacts with hostility. Elizabeth begins a sexual fling with her older, dashing boss (Samuel L. Jackson) after two days at her new job, but when he shows indications of wanting something deeper, she slips away like a breeze.

"The wind changed, didn't it?" he asks, guessing well.

Karen and Elizabeth are mother and child, which is also the title of this powerful, superbly acted drama from writer/director Rodrigo Garcia. "Mother and Child" is about mothers who give their daughters up for adoption, or are trying to adopt a child of their own.

The film explores uncomfortable themes. One could read it as a condemnation of women who let their children be adopted, judging by the irreparable wound it has inflicted on Karen.

Giving her daughter away, even though she was only 14 at the time, literally ruined Karen's life. Elizabeth's own life seems well on its way to disaster, despite her seemingly impenetrable shell of self-confidence.

"The adoption thing is so unnatural. Why don't people just say it?" one of the characters says.

But I think while Rodrigo flirts with this notion, he ultimately is arguing that love is something that you grow in time, and is not something automatically granted through a quirk of fate and biology. Consider Karen's non-existent relationship with her own elderly mother, who hopes for death every day.

Layer upon layer, Rodrigo builds his story, adding more characters and relationships, which (ultimately) intersect.

There is Lucy (a terrific Kerry Washington), an ambitious young woman who owns her own bakery and desperately wants to adopt. She and her husband -- who seems onboard with the plan -- meet with Ray (Shareeka Epps), a 20-year-old expectant mother who has already turned down several couples who wanted to adopt her baby. Ray puts them through such paces Lucy says it's like being taken to the principal's office.

Karen has a housekeeper/caretaker, Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), who brings her own young daughter to work with her, much to Karen's consternation. She grows even more upset when she learns her mother gave Sofia's daughter a cherished necklace, and seems closer to these strangers than her own daughter.

"Mother and Child" is well-made and heartfelt, though not perfect. The story tends to get stuck in eddies needlessly; for example, Karen has a reunion with the father of her child, her first (and one suspects only) boyfriend. The encounter is brief, emotional and doesn't fit with the rest of the film.

I also wanted to spend more time with Elizabeth. Watts draws such an intriguing character, we want to penetrate the mystery a little deeper. The film concludes -- a little too tidily -- before we get a chance.

But that's a complaint wrapped in a compliment: We're left wanting more.

3.5 stars out of four

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