Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child is a decent film that doesn't quite live up to its compelling mix of cast and subject matter. Much like, apparently, his previous features Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her and Nine Lives (which I haven't seen), Mother and Child is a multi-threaded narrative about a sprawling group of women, in this case linking female characters from the cradle to the grave via a series of pregnancies and adoptions.
There are three women at the core of the story: Tightly wound and sharp-tongued physical therapist Karen (Annette Bening), who gave up a baby for adoption at age 14 and, 37 years later, still lives unhappily at home with her ailing mother, still obsessing over the daughter she never knew; icy attorney Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), who broke free of her adoptive parents at 17, choosing a new name and moving on without any emotional attachments; and high-strung bakery owner Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is unable to conceive and is, along with her more reluctant husband, pursuing adoption.
Some connections snap into place quickly — you can pretty much tell from the synopsis that Elizabeth is the child Karen gave up. Others don't emerge until near the end. Garcia keeps Lucy's storyline on a separate track — connected, on the surface, only by using the same Catholic adoption service that Karen once used — until very late, and the plot contortions used to weave her into the arc lack a satisfying snap. It feels more like a cheat.
But even if the plot of Mother and Child sometimes feels calculated in a manner similar to other recent narratives such as Crash or Babel (the latter's Alejandro González Iñárritu is an executive producer here), the difference is that the characters always feel real. Credit this, in large part, to a fine trio of underused actresses. Washington probably hasn't had a role this substantial and real since debuting in Jim McKay's too-little-seen 2000 indie Our Song. Watts, since breaking out in Mulholland Dr., might be the most consistently interesting actress in movies. But the standout here is Bening, who plays a woman slowly and fitfully overcoming a lifetime of resentment, working through early hints of caricature to an affecting transformation.
Garcia embeds good performances in the spaces surrounding these women as well. Jimmy Smits and Samuel L. Jackson are interesting in understated roles, but fitting such a women-oriented film, the best supporting turns come from Shareeka Epps (the high school student in Half Nelson) as an expectant young mother and S. Epatha Merkerson, who schools daughter Lucy in the film's strongest individual scene.
Mother and Child works well in individual moments, performances, and narrative strands, but it doesn't add up to the big statement the film's high-concept title promises. Taken together, it feels a little too much like a constricted, soft-edged soap opera. And its approach to big issues — what constitutes a family, biological versus adoptive parentage — never gets past the banal, especially considering the film's deliberate avoidance of the possibility of abortion as part of this equation.
Mother and Child
Opening Friday, July 2nd