Film Review: Mother and Child

An emotional and intensely realistic examination of three women with ties to adoption.

Perhaps because adoption juxtaposes feelings of love and loss, writer-director Rodrigo García centers his bittersweet, superbly crafted Mother and Child on three women affected by adoption. Raised by an adopted family, Naomi Watts plays Elizabeth, a cold, itinerant lawyer. Annette Bening portrays Karen, a childless woman who mourns the daughter she gave up for adoption over 30 years ago, at the age of 14, and who cares for her aging mother. Giving the subject a fresh, raw voice, Kerry Washington plays Lucy, an infertile women going through the trials of adopting a child.

From the beginning, García grabs hold of the viewer with his ability to create a precise gap between the characters’ words and their actions. What the characters say does not always reflect the reality of the situation, and their voiced opinions often belie their deeper desires. Elizabeth and Karen both have trouble forming emotional connections with others, and it’s fascinating to watch them rebuff the men that are drawn to them. Elizabeth gives herself physically to her boss (Samuel L. Jackson), but not emotionally, and Karen rejects a compassionate co-worker (Jimmy Smits), afraid of giving away her true feelings.

García’s complex script gives viewers the gratification of decoding his characters’ inscrutable actions. At one point, Elizabeth lashes out at her doctor, who presumes she wants a medical procedure done based on her past decisions. She swipes everything off the waiting-room counter, crying, “How dare you presume to know what I want?” She’s not upset because the doctor thought she would have an abortion when she wants to keep the baby. She’s upset because her pride has been wounded. The stubborn woman who refuses emotional connections must acknowledge that she wants to bring a life into this world. It’s rare for a director to trust his audience to deduce such an important point, which makes García’s restraint that much more valued.

Mother and Child has that numinous tone of a weepie: a mixture of loss and joy that prickles heartstrings and forces you to examine the “what ifs” of the characters’ lives. García shows remarkable control of the tone, holding it across three different stories and through the characters’ individual transformations that lead them to ostensibly happier places. Grief is never forgotten, but informs the subsequent joy. This is the kind of movie that leaves you a little shell-shocked, still absorbing the emotional impact of the story after you’ve left the theatre.

García’s work does not have the clinical feel of psychology, but shows a deep understanding of his characters’ interior lives, an interest sustained through his other work (Nine Lives, HBO’s “In Treatment”). The use of interlocking stories brings to mind the work of his executive producer, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel). Garcia’s steady hand and superb craftsmanship in his second theatrical feature establish him as a blossoming writer and director. With its precisely captured emotions and motivations, Mother and Child is a sublime accomplishment.