Movie Review: Mother and Child
By Matthew Huntley
May 18, 2010
If drama is measured by how well it makes us feel, then Mother and Child approaches masterpiece. This is one of the best, most heartrending films to come out in a long time - it’s truthful, observant, tactful, happy and sad. Many films have a hard time expressing raw emotion without being condescending or overly manipulative. Mother and Child”finds a way.
The film tells three interlocking stories, each with an independent woman at its center, and the performances by the lead actresses - Annette Bening, Naomi Watts and Kerry Washington - are so good they could be the performances of their careers. Each of them has been strong before, but here they set a new standard for themselves.
First woman: Karen (Bening), a physical therapist who admits she’s difficult to get along with, which is obviously linked to her personal guilt and troubled past. At 14, she had a child but gave it up for adoption. Now in her early 50s, Karen lives and cares for her ailing mother. At night, she sits alone and writes letters to her long-lost daughter, whom she’s never tried to contact. She only smiles when she talks about the new man in her office (Jimmy Smits), but she’s not used to being liked.
Second woman: Elizabeth (Watts), a cold and seemingly heartless lawyer crippled by anger and resentment. Elizabeth was adopted and has turned herself off emotionally. She buries herself in her work and tells her new boss, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), that she prefers working alone and reporting to a man because other women find her intimidating. Later on, we see why.
Third woman: Lucy (Washington), a successful businesswoman who’s unable to conceive children. Together with her husband (David Ramsey), she wants to adopt a baby because she believes this is her path toward happiness and feeling complete. Her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) doesn’t like the idea and has a knack for always saying the wrong thing just when Lucy is starting to feel good about herself.
I’ll not reveal how these women are connected, but each individual story is so engaging it could have made a film all its own. The parallels and links between each narrative raise tension and spark intrigue, but they’re supplemental without being essential. That’s an important difference. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia knows that good storytelling doesn’t hinge on devices, but on characters and behavior. He has crafted one of the tightest and most emotionally captivating films since Little Children, and its pacing and energy make it one of the best directed films of the year, few of which have been able to penetrate our hearts while still being cinematic. A lesser director might have turned this into a maudlin, conventional Lifetime movie, but it’s as thoughtful, serious and professionally made as any great drama.
The screenplay is sort of ingenious the way it allows each woman to act independently of one another. It doesn’t rely on meet-cutes or coincidences, which makes it more believable. We also don’t feel like the actors are competing for screen time. The stories, while occasionally succumbing to brief moments of melodrama and convenient plot devices, take honest, original directions and defy our expectations (and hopes) for how things will turn out. This not only makes them more indelible, but also more powerful.
To see acting this good is a blessing. Although each member of the cast deserves praise, it’s Annette Bening and Naomi Watts who stand out, probably because their characters go through the greatest transformations. The actresses must sell us on the nuances while maintaining credibility and they nail it.
Mother and Child is a wonderful and poignant epic drama. It touches us the way few films can or do. It’s every bit as involving as we could hope for, but also richly entertaining. Garcia, I’ve learned, has directed a lot of television, among them the acclaimed “Six Feet Under,” but he’s clearly ready for a full-fledged career in cinema. The man knows drama and we, the audience, remember it and feel it.