Mother and Child (***1/2)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child…”

The gift of life is examined through the eyes of three women. Three disparate souls haunted by their past, living life today teetering on emotional eggshells and apprehensive about their future. History binds them. Destiny sets them on a precarious course, falling towards each other. If they ever meet, it will be a revelation.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) is an over-ambitious, thirtysomething lawyer, new to a firm and eager to make her mark, sans friends or the support of workplace colleagues. Like a heat-seeking missile she targets the firm’s owner, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), an older widower with a weak libido. Karen (Annette Bening), a physical therapist, takes care of her elderly mother. She, too, is unable to form bonds with just about anyone. Untrusting, terse, emotionally crippled she doesn’t know how to handled the advances of a Paco (Jimmy Smits), a well-meaning suitor. Lucy (Kerry Washington) is determined to have a baby, but unable to give birth. She is hell-bent on adopting, even if her husband Joseph (David Ramsey) and her mother (S. Epatha Merkerson) may be ambivalent.

Complications pour on to the characters like a torrent of rain, adding levels of pain that cannot be seen from the surface. Elizabeth never knew her real mother or father. Karen, as an unwed teen, was forced by her mother to give up a child for adoption 37 years ago. Lucy’s insecurities are boundless as she plays mind games with a pregnant adolescent who may or may not give her baby to a barren woman. The three ladies live within minutes of each other but are oblivious to each other’s plight. Credit writer/director Rodrigo Garcia for creating the characters, giving them insightful dialogue, weaving their lives together and painting a picture that caresses forlorn mothers and children. His script, themed around adoption, has a lyrical feel. His direction, of a multi-cultural, multi-generational, extremely talented ensemble cast, is thoughtful and sensitive.

Watt’s cold persona masks deep hurt and has such complexity. Bening’s love-deprived Karen shields her heart with anger. Washington’s need to be a mother rings true. And for once a story clearly designed around women’s needs does not scapegoat men. Jackson’s austere turn Elizabeth’s father figure Elizabeth is his most subtle performance to date. Smits, as the angel of mercy assigned to pierce the armor of a hardened, crippled, bitter woman, is saintly.

The original music by Ed Shearmur, and classy cinematography by Xavier PÈrez Grobet give the film the feel of an exquisite string quartet with pleading music that peaks at all the right times. The set decoration by Lisa Fischer and production design by Christopher Tandon make the suburban setting suitably sterile.

In the wrong hands, this film could have been grating melodrama. Under Garcia’s watchful eye, this is an ode to mothers and children who are lost but not forgotten.