Saturday, May 22, 2010

A Movie a Day, Day Six: Mother and Child

The new week’s movie schedule in Friday’s paper triggered the same old frustration: Everyone Else, Teza and The Square all left before I had a chance to see them. I guess I need to watch a lot more than a movie a day just to keep up with the new ones that sound promising.

I did get to Mother and Child, a tasteful tearjerker written and directed by Rodrigo García. García, who’s Gabriel García Marquez’s son, has done some interesting work in cable TV, helping to develop and produce the English-language version of In Treatment for HBO and directing episodes of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Big Love, among others.

His films tend to be ensemble affairs as well, cutting between multiple characters whose stories overlap. I’ve only seen two of his features — this one and Nine Lives — but the acting in both is outstanding. Between that and the emotional content of the stories, both movies had me groping for my Kleenex, but the insights and confessions are a facile enough to make the tears feel more coaxed than cathartic. It’s like that old saw about Chinese food: a couple of hours later, you’re hungry for something more substantial.

García makes what used to be known as “women’s pictures,” structuring most of his drama around his female characters’ feelings, frustrations, and secrets. All the parents and children in Mother and Child are female, with the exception of one baby boy who makes the briefest of appearances. In a common thread that soon feels reductive, even a little formulaic, almost every one of these women and girls is defined primarily by her relationship—or lack thereof—with her mother or daughter.

Much of the movie's tension comes from crosscutting between Elizabeth and Karen (Annette Bening), a mother and daughter who were separated when Karen put Elizabeth up for adoption after giving birth at age 14. That was the era of closed adoptions, so they have no idea who or where each other is. That one fact has tragically warped both of their personalities, making Elizabeth a control freak incapable of trust or intimacy and Karen a bedraggled, tight-lipped mope. As she tells Paco (Jimmy Smits), the improbably perfect man who pursues her with even more improbable persistence: "Every idea, every thought in my head takes me back to [her missing daughter] … I have nothing else, that's my life. I have nothing to give."

The other main storyline belongs to Lucy (an immensely sympathetic Kerry Washington), an infertile woman desperate to have a child. We also spend some time with Ray (Shareeka Epps, the fiercely gifted actress who debuted in Half Nelson), an aggressively assertive pregnant teen who's auditioning Lucy as a prospective mother to her son. And of course, we also meet Ray's mother. She's played by Lisa Gay Hamilton, who radiates her usual sanity, strength and good humor in her few brief scenes.

Actresses of that caliber keep showing up. The great Cherry Jones plays a nurturing nun who's pretty much the polar opposite of the grim reaper she embodied in Doubt on Broadway. S. Epatha Merkerson is Lucy's sharp-tongued but supportive mother, and Amy Brenneman makes a poignant impression as a gynecologist. Elizabeth Peña is the shrewdly competent boss who hires Elizabeth after she runs away from her last job.

Watching these thoroughbreds go through their paces is enough to make this movie worth seeing, but I wish they had a better track to run on.

Written for The House Next Door.

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