Director: Rodrigo Garcia Barcha
Starring: Annette Bening, Naomi Watts, Kerry Washington
During the first half of its running time Rodrigo Garcia Barcha’s Mother and Child is an almost relentlessly brutal film, its characters defined by the pain they feel and the pain they inflict on others. By the second half, however, those hard edges are softened considerably, revealing a delicately wrought character study about people who are all too human and all too flawed. Mother and Child is a totally riveting character-driven drama carried by three terrific performances.
Garcia divides the story into three parts. One thread follows Karen (Annette Bening), still reeling from having given birth at 14 and putting her baby up for adoption, and taking that pain out on the entire world. Her anger soon finds its focus on Paco (Jimmy Smits), a new co-worker who gently pursues her even though she might possibly be the most needlessly hostile person on the planet. Then again, that title might also fall on Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), an ambitious lawyer who has no ties to anyone and professes to prefer it that way. She was given up for adoption at birth (by a mother who was only 14...) and her anxiety over being abandoned now expresses itself in her refusal to form attachments with anyone - at least until the discovery that she herself is pregnant (a minor miracle given that she had her tubes tied).
These two pieces of the puzzle fit together fairly easily and obviously; the third takes some effort. This section concerns Lucy (Kerry Washington) who is in the process of trying to adopt with her husband, Joseph (David Ramsey). Their adoption agency has put them into contact with Ray (Shareeka Epps), who set up a series of hoops for them to jump through and seems to feed on the amount of control the situation gives her over couples desperate to have a child. Eventually Joseph decides that he cannot bring himself to raise a child that is not biologically his, but Lucy is determined to see the commitment through and adopt the baby. In hindsight the connection of this third story to the first two is obvious but, I must confess, that watching it for the first time I was so engrossed by the story that it didn’t even occur to me that it would tie in the way that it does until it was already well into the process of doing so.
The story moves slowly, allowing the characters to blossom and the relationships to build at a gentle pace. Both Karen and Elizabeth are deeply wounded characters who hold themselves apart from the rest of the world but as the story develops, they become more open to the people around them. Lucy undergoes an opposite arc, beginning the film as a very open character and then snapping shut in response to the emotional turmoil that she endures (though, it should be noted, that she is at no point as unpleasant or downright scary as Karen and Elizabeth are at the beginning). Garcia takes a great deal of care in the way that he deals with these characters, allowing you to become so invested in them that you forget about the narrative conventions dictating the direction of the story and just get carried along by it.
Bening, Washington and Watts all deliver great performances, with Watts being the one who stands out the most, perhaps because Elizabeth is the film’s most fascinating character. Not knowing her biological parents has given her an intense need for control in relationships (perfectly expressed in a scene where she seduces her boss, played by Samuel L. Jackson) and her anger at her mother, particularly, drives her to initiate an affair with her neighbour whose wife is very pregnant, as if she believes that hurting any mother is as good as hurting her own. At the same time, however, there is a degree of vulnerability to the character. She moves a lot but always returns to the city of her birth, knowing, perhaps, that she may be reunited with her mother if she stays and wanting that despite her frequent protestations that she doesn’t care. Watts is a great actress and this is definitely one of her most finely crafted performances. She’s the best reason for seeing Mother and Child, but the film has plenty to its credit. I highly recommend it.