Three women deal with different approaches to motherhood in Mother and Child, an actory but ultimately more or less satisfying movie.
Karen (Annette Bening) is a brittle and joyless 50-something who lives with her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan) and works at a nursing home. She seems like someone who has hardened into her current bitter and unkind state — openly hostile to her mother’s home caregiver, Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo), and Sofia’s young daughter Cristi (Simone Lopez). And despite being interested in Paco (Jimmy Smits), a new worker at the nursing home, she is difficult and off-putting in the extreme when he attempts to begin a friendship with her.
Though there could be many reasons for the hard-packed personality Karen has developed, you sense that the main reason is related to the scenes we see in the movie’s opening moments, when a young girl has sex with her boyfriend and then, months later, is seen sitting in a room with other girls who, like her, are now in a family way. Karen gets only a few glimpses of her baby girl before she is whisked away, leaving only an ever growing hole in Karen’s soul.
Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) seems to have a bit of a hole in her soul as well — adopted at birth, she has never met her birth mother, lost her adopted father at a young age and does not have a good relationship with her mother. We suspect that Elizabeth, also brittle, judgmental and relatively lacking in joy, doesn’t have a good relationship with anybody. A talented lawyer with ambitions, she has avoided putting down roots. When she interviews at a new law firm with owner Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), she also informs him that it’s better if she reports to a man than a woman, as women often feel threatened by her. When we see her aggressively seduce a married man, we can guess at why that might be.
Lucy (Kerry Washington) and her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) want a child but Lucy can’t get pregnant. They turn to Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), a nun working at an orphanage, to find a child to adopt, perhaps the child of Ray (Shareeka Epps), a difficult 20-year-old woman who wants to give up the child she’s carrying. Perhaps it’s hope that keeps Lucy from seeing what her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) senses, which is that Ray is not going to make adoption easy for them. Though seemingly entering into the adoption process to please her husband, Lucy slowly becomes more and more devoted to this unborn child Ray is carrying.
In all three story lines, the women are dealing not only with children but with their mothers, whether present or not. In all three cases, the women have, however briefly, some form of surrogate children — for Karen it’s Kristi, for Elizabeth it’s a teenage neighbor — with whom they work out some of their feelings about the whole mother and child situation. They also have some kind of coming to terms with their own mothers. There is just enough to spoil here that it’s hard to go into more detail, but the way the movie ends up, its final 30 or so minutes, really does get to many different aspects of mothering and being mothered. The movie has some smart things to say about the relationship — particularly between mothers and daughters — and it leaves you thinking about the nature of motherhood long after the movie ends.
Which is all my way of saying, hang in there. Particularly during the movie’s first hour, which moves in geological time and presents us with one scene after another featuring the less sympathetic, more unlikeable qualities of the central characters. I remember checking my cell phone hoping I’d gone maybe an hour and being discouraged to find that I was only 30 minutes in. Even worse, the next time I checked the clock, it was only four minutes later.
There is a “look at my performance” quality to these initial scenes, as if all of these women were establishing their fitness for Oscar consideration. Combined with the harshness of the characters they play, this actory acting is as off-putting as Karen’s first-date suggestion to Paco that he watch his weight. There are a few moments of dry humor, but mostly there is a sense of weariness, as though the actors, and with them us, are doing some very heavy lifting. I felt myself passing time in the theater long before I got sucked into the story.
This much buildup isn’t completely forgiven by the less self-conscious, more engaging performances. I liked where the movie went and the change we saw the characters go through, but I wish the getting there had been more enjoyable. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia has a lot of HBO TV shows on his résumé and I feel like a lot of the things he did with the first half of the movie are probably more suited to episodic television, where you have weeks, not minutes, to build a character. Mother and Child is, like the relationships it discusses, messy, difficult and not always pleasant — and it is eventually worth it. B-
Rated R for sexuality, brief nudity and language. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, Mother and Child is two hours and five minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics..