Mother and Child: Rodrigo Garcia’s Femme-Driven Tale

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Based on the previous films of Rodrigo Garcia (“Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her,” “Nine Lives”), it’s safe to deduce three things. First, that he really loves and depends on actors, for each of his picture relies on a large, stellar ensemble. Second, that he loves women, as most of his narrative criss-crossed tales of women of various ages, races, professions, sexual orientation, and so on. And third, that he is a humanist of the highest order, believing in a life that’s ultimately based on harmonious co-existence of men and women, whites and blacks (and other minorities), parents and children. In Garcia’s utopian world, all problems could be resolved with greater sensitivity to self and others by achieving more acute self-consciousness.

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The above admirable attributes does not necessarily mean that Garcia is really a good filmmaker.  At this phase, he strikes me as a better storyteller than director; he has major problems with tempo and pacing of his narratives. And so it is with reservations that I approach his new feature, “Mother and Child, Which Sony Pictures Classics will release theatrically May 7, in time for Mother’s Day.
The movie, like the previous ones, benefits from a glorious ensemble, headed by Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington, Cherry Jones, and others, all in top form.
Not surprisingly, “Mother and Child” is executive-produced by the Mexican director (now based in L.A.) Alejandro González Iñárritu (“21 Grams,” which also starred Naomi Watts in an Oscar-nominated turn, the Oscar-nominated “Babel”), a master of criss-crossed tales driven by fate and accident.
As written by Garcia, “Mother and Child” tells the predictable, intermittently moving story of three women, who are either mothers and/or daughters, each suffering from a major “lack” in their lives. The three femmes share one thing in common core: In one-way or another, they have all been profoundly affected by adoption.
In the first, very brief scene, we see a couple of teenagers make love. The next thing they know the 14-year-old girl, Karen, is pregnant and gives birth. Cut to the middle-aged Karen (Annette Bening), a troubled, unhappy woman who has been haunted ever since she placed the baby for adoption.
The daughter Karen never knew is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) grew up as an adopted child. At 38, she is a bright, confident, and ambitious lawyer, but a loner in her personal life, which she tries to conduct and control without any expression of overt emotions.
The third woman is African-American Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is sterile and is now embarking with her loyal and loving husband on the long, torturous process of adoption odyssey. Their main goal and hope in life is the opportunity to become parents.
At least six other women populate the seemingly complex saga; I say seemingly complex, because the narrative structure turns out to be too schematic and conventional as the story unfolds.  We get to know these women and their entourages both at work and in their private lives. Karen lives with her elderly, disabled mother, Nora (Eileen Ryan), works as a physical therapist in a rehabilitation clinic, and relies on a Latina housekeeper named Sofia (Elpidia Carrillo) to look after Nora and their home while she is working.
Harsh as nails and pragmatic and matter-of-fact to a fault, Karen and Nora barely speak. In her leisure, Karen keeps up an ongoing but silent monologue addressed to her absent daughter, writing journal entries and letters that, needless to say, never get sent. Nora’s caregiver Sofia brings her little daughter Cristi (Simone Lopez) to work with her, and they enjoy a warmer relationship with Nora than does Karen, which makes her even more insecure and jealous.
Karen resents Sofia and is uncomfortable around little Cristi. In fact, she’s uncomfortable around just about everybody—she’s a prickly, demanding, and unsociable woman at home and at work, where she coldly and rudely rebuffs the friendly gestures of a new therapist, Paco (Jimmy Smits).
Elizabeth has been newly hired at a prestigious law firm presided over by Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), a sensitive, considerate boss and a sensitive widower. Elizabeth impresses Paul with her sharp legal skills and blunt straight-talking style—but also with her take-charge attitude towards seduction. Before long, the sexy associate is having an affair with her much-older boss. Their sex scene is quite interesting, not least because Elizabeth demands complete control and the act is seen from her subjective POV. Sitting on Paul, Elizabeth does all the erotic movement and insists, “let me be the first to cum,” which I suppose is criticism of men’s sexual habits to initiate sex, dominate the intercourse, climax quickly, and be inconsiderate to women’s needs.
For his part, Paul is a big-hearted family man with an expansive view of life, while Elizabeth is emotionally chilly; she describes herself as remote from her adopted family, with no close attachments. Their opposites-attract affair is curious enough to keep them both interested. Elizabeth, though enjoys sex as sport, perceiving it as a conquering act. Soon, her yuppie neighbor Steven (Marc Blucas), who is married to the very-pregnant TRACY (Carla Gallo), becomes her casual conquest. Elizabeth seems to take pleasure, cruelly and deliberately, in undermining the happy-family-to-be.
Lucy and her husband Jospeh (David Ramsey), disappointed that they can’t conceive, turn to Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones) at a private Catholic adoption agency. There they meet Ray (Shareeka Epps), a young pregnant woman who is interviewing potential parents for her unborn child. Defying stereotypes, Ray is no grateful, helpless teenager—she’s an articulate adult with tough questions and a demanding attitude, but Lucy’s forthright candor wins Ray over. Lucy is excited that she has at least made the first cut, but family and friends on all sides feed uncertainty.
Meanwhile, Ray’s mother Letitia (Lisa Gay Hamilton) discourages her from giving up the baby. Joseph’s parents can’t hide their disappointment hat their “prince” won’t have a blood heir. Lucy’s mother Ada (S. Epatha Merkerson), who helps Lucy run her successful bakery, is supportive but worried. Eventually, Joseph gets cold feet and admits that he wants his own biological child, even if that means breaking up with Lucy, however reluctantly.
When Nora dies, Karen is distraught to hear from Sofia that Nora blamed herself for ruining Karen’s life by making her give up her baby 37 years earlier—just the words that Karen waited in vain to hear herself. Looking for solace, Karen tracks down the father of her baby, Tom (David Morse), now a long-married father who confesses that he has never forgotten her. They make love, but Tom can’t live up to Karen’s expectations. Out of her despair, though, comes an impulse to reach out to her tolerant and generous coworker Paco, who is protective and drawn to her wounded neediness. They marry, and happiness seems finally within Karen’s reach.
Paco encourages Karen to try to find her long-lost daughter. Karen’s adoption decades earlier was handled by the same Catholic agency that has connected Lucy and Ray. There, Sister Joanne explains to Karen that the only way for she and her daughter to find each other would be for one of them to leave a letter inviting contact in the agency’s file. Karen assumes that since her daughter never left such a letter, she must not want to make contact.
But Elizabeth is that daughter—and she does indeed want to find her birth mother, because she discovers that she is pregnant. She has decided to keep the baby and wants the child to know her grandmother. She writes a letter to her birth mother and leaves it with the adoption agency. Elizabeth had her tubes tied at 17, but she has—against all odds—conceived anyway. She can’t know if the baby is her boss Paul’s, or her neighbor Steven’s, but she takes flight, disappearing from her upscale apartment, job and life.
Paul tracks her down and offers to take care of her and the baby, but she denies that it’s his, releasing him from obligation. The baby girl who is born by emergency C-section is brown-skinned—hence Paul’s—but Elizabeth dies giving birth, leaving her baby orphaned.  Meanwhile, Lucy has decided to go ahead with adopting Ray’s baby on her own. Lucy is present and ecstatic at the birth, but Ray changes her mind about giving up the baby. Lucy is devastated, but lo and behold, there’s another baby, though, who needs a home—Elizabeth’s.
The last, weak sequence of the film takes place a year later. Elizabeth’s letter is finally found in a pile of paperwork clutter at the agency. When the agency contacts her, Karen discovers that the daughter she never knew is dead, but her daughter’s daughter lives in her own neighborhood, adopted by Lucy. Their first meeting is joyful. New mother Lucy, her adopted daughter Ella, and Ella’s grandmother Karen begin to forge a new family connection.
Ultimately, “Mother and Child” is too literal, wearing its humanist message, about the power of the strong, unbreakable bond between mother and child, on its sleeves. These attributes, and the fact that, in the end, everything is explained, turns the saga into an inspirational TV-like drama.
I fully embrace the film’s timely and humanist message, but I think it’s trying to do too much. There is no ambiguity—emotional, narrative—and every single detail is depicted and explained. “Mother and Child” would have been a better, more provocative film, if it did not have clear closure, or explicit resolution, not to mention upbeat ending. As it is, there is nothing for the audience to do, no surprises whatsoever, but to not at the end with approval.